Jul 032019
 

It was a bold and brash attack on innocent girls that outraged the world and spawned unprecedented online activism: Boko Haram, an extremist Muslim group in Nigeria, abducted about 276 schoolgirls from a rural secondary school in the town of Chibok on April 14, 2014.

Since that time about half have been recovered, and over 100 remain missing despite an international outcry and hundreds of celebrities demanding that the group #Bringbackourgirls. Despite the presence of advisors and special forces troops from countries including the United States, Canada, England, and France, the location of the kidnapped girls remains unknown—or if it is known, it has been deemed too difficult a location to stage a successful rescue mission.

Though the Chibok girls got international attention, they were not the only victims. As The New York Times Magazine described, many thousands of boys were also abducted and conscripted into Boko Haram’s ranks, forced to pillage, shoot innocent people, and at times behead their victims. Missing girls typically get more media attention than missing boys, and this was no exception.

Bringing Back Our Girls and Boys

So what happened? How has Boko Haram been able to defy a half-dozen of the most powerful nations in the world for half a decade? There are several reasons.

First, rooting out the group has been much more difficult than American and Nigerian officials expected. The region where the captives were taken is remote and vast—including the rugged Sambisa Forest where surveillance drones are of little use—and where the Nigerian government has limited influence. Many also blamed Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan for not accepting international assistance sooner.

Second, the limits of hashtag activism became apparent; sharing outrage on social media felt empowering to many shortly after the abduction but did not translate into any real effect. The collective outrage of the Western world was irrelevant to Boko Haram, who reveled in the attention and recognition. Celebrities including Justin Timberlake, Sean Penn, and Bradley Cooper joined the campaign; Timberlake, for example, tweeted an image holding signs that said “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls”—a well-intended effort based on the dubious premise that militant Muslim terrorists can be shamed into questioning their masculinity by wealthy American actors and pop stars.

First Lady Michele Obama was one of many prominent celebrities to embrace the cause, and the fact that the wife of the most powerful man in the world addressed the group in a viral May 7 photo posted to social media asking for the return of its hostages gave Boko Haram legitimacy it sought.

The online community soon lost interest when positive results weren’t forthcoming. As days turned to weeks and months to years, the demand to Bring Back Our Girls faded. Most of those who initially shared the pleas on social media soon moved on to other causes and other concerns, including ALS water dunkings and outrage over the police shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri. Other important international news stories took precedence.

Third, political and ethical pressures have prevented the return of the kidnapped girls. There have been several opportunities to bring back the captives, but none of them were politically viable for Nigeria and the United States. For example one option would be to simply buy the girls back from Boko Haram, since they were captured to be sold as slaves. While this would safely reunite the girls with their families and achieve a peaceful end to this hostage situation, this would put both countries in the position of participating in the slave trade and trafficking of humans—which of course is illegal and morally abhorrent.

American officials could reframe the situation to avoid the slavery aspect by simply referring to the girls as “hostages” (regardless of what Boko Haram wishes to call them), and proceed to negotiate for their release, as governments around the world often do (whether they publicly acknowledge it or not). Informal overtures were made to Boko Haram about the possibility of making a deal for the girls’ return. Some have expressed outrage at the practice, saying it encourages kidnapping and rewards terrorism, but the simple fact is that governments negotiate with terrorists all the time while officially denying it. The reason is simple: if a group has hostages you want returned alive and unharmed, there are very few options. Like it or not, the best way to get the desired outcome is to negotiate the release of hostages. Anything else, including—and especially—an armed military attack is likely to leave dozens of people (both terrorists and hostages) dead, which the government will likely be blamed for.

Not only has Boko Haram refused to release its hostages as demanded, but their power has grown. Abductions and attacks have continued; as a CNN timeline shows, the group’s power remains. The Obama administration was understandably distracted by serious conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Russia, and elsewhere, and the Boko Haram hostage situation created a very thorny political and ethical dilemma that the Trump administration has shown no appetite for tackling. The parents of the kidnapped girls, of course, don’t care whether Nigeria and the Western countries set political precedents or appear to appease terrorists or buy slaves. They just want their children returned.

Jul 012019
 

Breathless headlines last month referred to the “FBI Investigating Bigfoot,” a clickbaity phrase if ever social media saw one, along with the promise that newly-declassified FBI files shed light on the mystery.

As intriguing and sensational as it sounds, it turns out to be much ado about nothing. I’ll summarize the story, but there’s not much to tell.

In 1976 prominent Bigfoot researcher Peter Byrne, director of the Bigfoot Information Center and Exhibition, wrote to the FBI asking if they would agree to analyze some material—specifically fifteen hairs of unknown origin, along with a bit of skin.

This got a December 15, 1976 response back from Jay Cochran, Jr., Assistant Director of the FBI’s Scientific and Technical Services Division. He explained that the FBI typically only works on criminal cases, but that “Occasionally, on a case-by-case basis, in the interest of research and scientific inquiry, we make exceptions to this general policy. With this understanding, we will examine the hairs and tissue.” A follow up letter to Byrne’s colleague Howard Curtis (dated February 24, 1977) provided the results of the examination: “the hairs are of deer family origin.”

And… that’s about it.

The FBI did not “investigate Bigfoot.” It did not deem it credible or even worthy of investigation. It agreed to use its technical expertise to analyze some unknown hairs for a respected Bigfoot researcher, which turned out to be deer.

Which, by the way, is fine with me. Though I prefer that public funds not be spent on Bigfoot research (at least until such time as more compelling evidence emerges), I have no objection to an ad hoc scientific analysis of possible Bigfoot hairs by the FBI or any crime lab. After all, that’s the only way that the creatures—if they’re real—will ever be verified. I understand that the Bigfoot believer community is desperate for scientific legitimacy, and has been for decades, but this recently-released FBI correspondence won’t provide it.

Jun 292019
 

In 2011 I had just written an article for Discovery News about a bogus psychic in Long Island when a young woman named Holly Bobo went missing in Tennessee. Her abduction made national news, and I decided to monitor psychic predictions and information about her disappearance in real time (instead of the more-common after-the-fact analysis). It was revealing research that provided fodder for another article–and prompted a legal threat from a psychic!

You can hear the whole story exclusively on the Squaring the Strange, out now!

Jun 242019
 

I’ve been seeing links to this news story widely shared over the past few months, about the U.S. voting against a U.N. resolution condemning Nazis. It’s being shared as evidence of our current government supporting white supremacists– except that it happened in 2016 under Obama.

Media literacy tip: Recycling old news on social media is often misleading.

Jun 212019
 

Soon after a university cheating scandal recently broke, a meme declared that “White privilege is REAL,” and gave three examples presumably illustrating that premise. The first shows a photo of actress Felicity Huffman and states that “Feds will seek 4 months jail time for Felicity Huffman for bribing her daughter into college.” This is contrasted with two photos of African-American women, captioned with “Tanya McDowell got 12 years for sending her son to the wrong school district,” and “Kelley Williams-Bolar got 3 years and $30K fine for sending her daughters to the wrong district.”

It seems to be a sobering and damning indictment of racism in the criminal justice system (leaving aside—as this meme does—the significant differences in the crimes the women are charged with, the laws and sentencing that vary by state, and so on). But is it true? To assess the accuracy of the claims, let’s take a closer look at the cases mentioned.

Kelley Williams-Bolar

In 2007 Ohio mother Kelley Williams-Bolar wanted her daughters to enroll in the nearby Copley-Fairlawn School District. The problem was that they lived in Akron, and her children were not eligible to attend school in Copley-Fairlawn. Still, the promise of a highly-ranked school district was strong, so she falsified her address on school documents so they could be enrolled.

When school officials confronted her about the discrepancy, she asked her father, who did live within the Copley-Fairlawn district, to file additional documents stating that her children lived with him. Because school districts are funded with money paid by taxpayers within each district for residents of that district, Williams-Bolar was accused of fraud and cheating the system—an accusation she did not deny.

When caught, school officials asked her to repay the district $30,000, the value of the back tuition that her daughters had unfairly received over the years. She refused, resulting in her arrest and two convictions for records tampering. Williams-Bolar did not “get three years and a $30,000 fine” for her actions; she was sentenced to ten days in county jail, and served nine of them.

Whatever one may think of Williams-Bolar’s motivations, it’s not clear why this would be an example to contrast with “white privilege.” Given the very real and rampant racism that exists against people of color, singling this case out as a textbook example of a black woman abused by the system is curious. This is not a case where the full force of the law came down on a hapless black woman who’d committed a minor infraction.

Local authorities gave her every opportunity to avoid trouble, and in fact Ohio governor John Kasich reduced her convictions from felonies to misdemeanors specifically so that they would not jeopardize her chances of getting a teaching license—something rarely done for anyone, black or white. When asked whether she felt that she’d been treated differently by the school district or police because of her race, Williams-Bolar replied, “I cannot answer that. I just know that my situation happened for what I did…. I don’t think it happened because of the color of my skin.”

Tanya McDowell

Tanya McDowell, a 34-year-old Bridgeport, Connecticut woman, chose to send her five year old son to Brookside Elementary School despite the fact that he was ineligible to attend. McDowell was in fact sentenced to prison—but not specifically for sending her kid to the wrong school. She was charged with first-degree larceny and several counts of selling crack cocaine and marijuana. As the judge in her case noted, “This case is about the convictions for the sale of narcotics to an undercover police officer. I think you understand that because that is really the essence of what has gotten you into the predicament you find yourself today.” Thus McDowell did not in fact “get 12 years for sending her son to the wrong school district.”

McDowell faced more than 15 years in prison if convicted on all counts. She was sentenced to twelve years on drug and larceny charges, which was suspended after she served five of them. She eventually served a total of three years after being released in 2017, two years early. The sentence was not imposed upon her by a judge or jury, but was instead the result of plea deal she and her lawyer agreed to.

As with Williams-Bolar, it’s hard to see McDowell’s case as an example of excessive and harsh penalties being levied on black women by a white-biased justice system whose only crime is wanting their children to get a good education. In both of these cases those in power demonstrated sympathy and compassion, and the women didn’t serve anywhere near what was claimed. One can argue that the sentences were too harsh to begin with, but Williams-Bolar serving nine days (instead of three years) and McDowell serving three years (of a twelve year sentence for charges including drug dealing)—don’t seem to clearly demonstrate black women being harshly penalized at every turn, nor ones that starkly contrast with Felicity Huffman’s white privilege.

As of today Huffman has not been sentenced, but if she is indeed given four months of jail time (as the prosecutors recommended) then Huffman’s sentence would actually be twelve times longer than that of Williams-Bolar. Huffman’s wealthy white privilege is certainly real, but in this case it didn’t seem to have helped reduce her sentence as compared to the poorer African-American women listed. Also, it’s important to note the Huffman, like McDowell, negotiated and accepted her sentence in a plea deal, and thus would get a lighter sentence than Williams-Bolar—or one of Huffman’s wealthy white female peers who may yet be found guilty in a criminal trial, such as actress Lori Loughlin. As noted, it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison to begin with; it would be more informative to see a black woman in Huffman’s situation or a white woman in Williams-Bolar’s.

Mistake or Misinformation?

The fact that a widely-shared meme has factual errors is of course hardly surprising. Memes—especially ones with a political or social justice agenda—are often shared precisely because they generate outrage. The question is not whether white privilege is real; the question is whether the two specific examples given in this meme are valid examples by which to measure white privilege.

But even that is a red herring. Once we’ve established that the meme is false, a more interesting and important question becomes who created it in the first place, and why. After all, the false information contained in the meme was not merely a typographical error or a mistake in a date. Accurate information about both the cases of Williams-Bolar and McDowell are easy to find online; in order to get the correct spellings of the womens’ names, their photos, number and gender of children, the specific sentences and so on, it’s virtually certain that whoever created the meme saw the accurate information but intentionally chose to mischaracterize it, in not one but both cases. This wasn’t a mistake, this was intentionally misleading information spread for a political purpose; in other words it’s propaganda.

The meme (at least in the versions I saw) was uncredited, as many memes are. It’s created to be indistinguishable from any number of similar social justice memes. (This could be avoided if social media platforms required that memes be identified, either in the image itself or via metadata, by who created them. People could still create anonymous memes, of course, but they could be prevented from being seen or shared.)

Of course few people bother to fact-check the information they see. That (often thankless) task is left to journalists, media literacy educators—and sometimes skeptics. As they say, a lie can go around the world while the truth is still putting its shoes on, and nowhere is that truer than on social media. Clicking a Like or Share can take less than one second; researching and fact-checking can take hours. This is why critical thinking and media literacy are so important; they help us recognize when we are being manipulated and tricked into spreading misinformation.

One prime suspect in this case, in my opinion, is the Kremlin. It may be part of a widespread and sustained misinformation campaign to sow racial division and discord among Americans. This campaign is has been widely reported, and in 2017 I investigated a case where Russian disinformation campaigns and trolls specifically used racially charged news stories as a pretext to share misinformation and conspiracy theories (see my Special Report ‘How Russian Conspiracies Taint Social Activist ‘News’’).

Russia has been subtly manipulating well-intentioned social activists to share their viral outrage and anti-U.S. propaganda, and their attempts have become even more obvious recently. In fact such disinformation likely helped elect Trump: Part of Putin’s goal was to sow distrust of the Obama administration and outrage people into demanding a change in leadership. That Russia attempted, with varying degrees of success, to influence the presidential election in favor of Donald Trump is beyond dispute and widely accepted by the American intelligence community.

It is of course difficult for people to accept that they have embraced (and perpetuated) misinformation and manipulation—Mark Twain is said to have observed that “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled”—and that’s especially true for social justice activists sincerely trying to do good in the world by highlighting social, economic, and racial inequities. That’s one reason that Russian propaganda is so effective and insidious; it fits right in.

Some may try to justify sharing bogus information by saying that even though in this particular case the facts were wrong, it still symbolizes a very real problem and was therefore worthy of sharing if it raised awareness of the issue. This is an ends-justifies-the-means tactic often employed by those caught reporting a false story. The Trump administration adopted this position earlier in November 2017 when the President promoted discredited anti-Muslim videos via social media; his spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders acknowledged that at least some of the hateful videos Trump shared were bogus and represented events that did not happen as portrayed, but she insisted that their truth or falsity was irrelevant because they supported a “larger truth”—that Islam is a threat to the country’s security: “I’m not talking about the nature of the video,” she told reporters. “I think you’re focusing on the wrong thing. The threat is real, and that’s what the President is talking about.” Of course white privilege is real, but misinformation is misinformation regardless of who shares it, or why. There are enough real examples that people don’t need to fabricate them by comparing Huffman, Williams-Bolar and McDowell.

Otherwise socially literate and ‘woke’ people give more thought to where their clothes are made and their coffee is sourced than to where the information they believe and share on social media comes from. Putin has many puppets, and only the highest-profile one inhabits the White House. The vast majority of the Russian disinformation army are Americans who eagerly share misleading and divisive misinformation in the guise of good.

Jun 182019
 

Distrust of the news media is, or at least seems to be, at an all time high. A recent report by Gallup and the Knight Foundation found that 42 percent of Democrats, 75 percent of independents, and 94 percent of Republicans say they have lost some trust in the media.

Some, perhaps much, of the skepticism is surely deserved; journalistic failures are legion and the mistakes are very visible and often memorable, from Jayson Blair’s faked reporting at The New York Times to Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s disastrous Rolling Stone article. There are few careers in which a person is as routinely criticized, rightly or wrongly, as journalists, and many liberals share Trump’s constant refrain that the news media can’t be trusted.

I often see people posting a news story on social media with some version of the editorial comment, “Why isn’t the media covering this story?” Sometimes the phrase is in ALL CAPS and sometimes it’s worded slightly differently, but the gist is the same. It’s seen as a form of news censorship.

In a previous article I discussed one of the fallacies inherent in this question, that of considering “the media” as a single-minded homogenous entity, but there are other issues to unpack in this criticism.

In media literacy—as in science and skepticism generally—it’s often useful to remember psychologist (and CSI Fellow) Ray Hyman’s dictum: Before trying to explain something, be sure there’s something to explain. In other words, question and verify the truth of your assumptions before making an effort to understand why those premises are true. You may find there’s nothing to explain.

Here are a few recent examples of complaints about media censorship I’ve come across:

  • “Waffle House in Nashville: 4 dead, 4 wounded. 29 yr old naked white male shooter stopped by 29 yr old black man. Not interesting enough to make headline news.”
  • “An incel shot up a Tallahassee yoga studio yesterday, killing two women before turning the gun on himself. It didn’t even make a blip in the news cycle.”

In both of these cases a quick internet search reveals that the news stories were widely reported through mainstream media (the April 22 Waffle House shooting has over 13,000 news results from all the major outlets, and the Florida shooting, which happened just in the past week, has about half that). In fact, many people soon contradicted the claim made in the original post, noting that the story was being widely reported across the country and around the world: “It made headlines here as soon as it happened,” wrote one. “Here too,” added another. “It’s the top item at CNN”; “It’s all over my TV news,” and so on.  

  • In 2016 a friend lamented on Facebook that the news media was systematically ignoring a high murder rate in Chicago, with a veiled suggestion that racism played a role (as most victims were African American). An internet search yielded a handful of then-recent articles about it in Illinois newspapers, which I sent to him. He then replied that yes of course Chicago papers covered it, but almost no outlets elsewhere did—at least not in any depth. Another forty seconds of Google searching found many articles about the soaring homicide rate in that city from other regions, including an in-depth series in The New York Times I’d read a few weeks earlier titled “Chicago’s Murder Problem.”

Sample Sizes: Anecdotes Aren’t Data

Why were these people—and many others—assuming that the news stories they saw weren’t being seen by others? It seemed that in many or most cases the person had done little or no research to see how widespread the coverage was (or wasn’t); they’d just assumed that since they hadn’t seen as much news coverage as they’d have expected (or thought it deserved), it wasn’t being covered adequately. This is of course a subjective judgment; I personally would like for more news stories to include skepticism and evidence-based analysis.

The roots of this misperception are varied. One is the “If I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist” fallacy, a type of argument from personal experience. How does the person know that a given news story isn’t being reported? What efforts did they undertake to investigate how widely the news was being shared? These stories must have made the news somewhere; after all, that’s how they first found out about the story they’re suggesting is largely being ignored by the news media.

Upon seeing the news, how long did they spend watching each media channel, checking each website, or listening to each radio station to determine whether or not the news was being covered by that outlet? A few seconds? A few minutes? An hour? Did they use any methodology in their search? Did they use a search engine to scour the internet for all major news outlets to see which carried the story, or did they just check their usual handful of regular media sources?

This is essentially a sampling question, and as scientists and skeptics know, anecdotes are not data. How valid a conclusion is depends in part on how large the sample size is.

Why a given breaking news story is featured on one media outlet and not another at approximately the same time depends on many factors. Of course different news organizations rarely cover breaking news in exactly the same way. A local TV news station may have staff on the scene or en route in the first minutes of an event, while national news shows are scrambling to send regional reporters. Different television stations and managers have different policies about when to break into regularly scheduled programming with breaking news. The station manager at a city’s NBC affiliate, for example, may decide that a local shooting, school lockdown, natural disaster, or other event is important enough to their audience to interrupt a soap opera, while a manager at an ABC affiliate may feel differently.

Often the news story is in fact being widely covered—just not in that specific person’s social or news media circles. Part of the reason for this error is that people on social media have increasingly narrowly curated news feeds, which results in a smaller variety of stories appearing there. Both liberals and conservatives increasingly self-select those they interact with, for example by unfriending or blocking people with dissenting views and opinions. Most people get their news not directly from news organizations but from social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—mostly their news feeds and what their friends share. This creates an insular, herd mentality.

There’s also an inherent quasi-conspiracy aspect to these beliefs. They often assume, without evidence, an implicit suspicion of bad faith—that news editors and journalists are actively suppressing a story because of real or apparent political implications. One suggested, perhaps facetiously, that the story “wasn’t interesting enough” for national news; another suggested that the races of those involved caused the story to be sidelined. There are countless breaking news stories each day whose lack of live updates go unnoticed. Few take to social media to complain that, for example, a car accident with multiple fatalities isn’t being covered. It’s primarily stories freighted with some social or political import that are assumed to be the subject of intentional non- or under-reporting.


First—and False

Another factor is impatience for instant information. Critical thinkers and media-literate audiences know that slow, accurate news is better than fast, inaccurate news. Good journalism takes time. It takes time to interview primary sources, check facts, and do due diligence. Circulating rumor and unconfirmed speculation is cheap and easy. For editors at News Organization X, the question “Why Isn’t News Organization X covering this?” is one that resonates deeply, and it’s one that helps drive down the quality of journalism. Audiences demanding the latest news and constant updates can and will turn to less credible news outlets that are happy to circulate bad information immediately and correct (or not) the wrong information later.

The Gallup/Knight Foundation survey mentioned earlier titled “Indicators of News Media Trust”surveyed members of the public and asked “How important are each of the following factors in determining whether or not you trust a news organization?” The top answer, with 99 percent responding that it’s either very important or important, was “Its commitment to accuracy—not reporting stories until it verifies all the facts.” Thus we see a paradox: the public overwhelmingly understands that good, credible journalism often requires that news organizations not report a story before the facts are verified—but at the same time the public expects immediate news reporting on breaking events and criticizes the news media when they don’t see it. Ironically the early reports—the ones that the person is using to contrast with other news media that seemingly are refusing to air the story—are often the least reliable.

Occasionally people offer the opposite complaint and want to know why some seemingly superfluous puff piece is being covered. Why is this news?, they indignantly demand to know, usually regarding pieces about celebrity gossip, royal births, and the like. With so many real and present dangers, why is this stuff circulating?

The answer is that it’s not news, and not everything that gets shared on news or social media is news. But people on social media—ironically, including the person who shares it—are treating it as if it were important. Think of it this way: news items and memes are shared on social media precisely because we want people to notice and pay attention to them. In the same way that, as David Brinkley wrote, “The one function TV news performs very well is that when there is no news, we give it to you with the same emphasis as if there were,” the same applies to social media. The best way to stop the spread of toxic or stupid ideas is to simply not share them; it’s not to share them as widely as possible with a dismissive caption you hope is clever enough to go viral.

Catch and Kill vs. Censored

It’s important to distinguish this form of “news censorship” from claims that certain articles may be “spiked” or prevented from being published. News outlets have at times come under pressure to bury stories. Over the past year, for example, the “catch and kill” practice of publishers keeping potentially damaging revelations from being published was widely discussed in the context of National Enquirer paying for the exclusive rights to a person’s story (for example Stormy Daniels and President Trump). The same is alleged to have happened to Playboy model Karen McDougal, according to an NPR story:

A woman who had an alleged nine-month sexual relationship with Donald Trump more than a decade ago, is speaking on the record for the first time about signing a document from an apparent Trump media ally that effectively silenced her story. Karen McDougal told reporter Ronan Farrow in a piece published Friday in The New Yorker that she regretted signing the contract with American Media Inc., National Enquirer‘s parent company. “At this point I feel I can’t talk about anything without getting into trouble,” McDougal told Farrow. “I’m afraid to even mention his name.” Farrow reports, “On August 5, 2016, McDougal signed a limited life-story rights agreement granting A.M.I. exclusive ownership of her account of any romantic, personal, or physical relationship she has ever had with any then-married man.” The Wall Street Journal first reported on the agreement in 2016, saying A.M.I., whose C.E.O and chairman, David Pecker, has called Trump “a personal friend,” paid McDougal $150,000 for the rights to her story. The magazine never published a piece about it.

Those situations are very different, however, because they involve a single person’s exclusive personal or eyewitness account, usually of private conduct. A mass shooting or tragedy is a public event, and while each individual eyewitness or participant may have exclusive negotiable rights they can try to sell, the event itself is public domain; the story cannot be effectively hidden from view.

Like any other news event, a publisher or editor may of course choose to limit or omit coverage in that particular publication or outlet, but that doesn’t “bury” or hide the story; it just makes the outlet look like it’s being beaten by its competition. While it’s certainly true that some news stories are buried, backburnered, or downplayed, it’s relatively uncommon in the types of stories being complained about. News organizations are far more likely to put their own misleading spin on any high-profile event such as a shooting than to pretend it didn’t happen at all. I’ve written about media biases in my book Media Mythmakers, and there are many of them. But ignoring a potential ratings bonanza such as a mass shooting is not among them.

Ironically, many Democrats and liberals who ask “Why isn’t the media covering this story?” are implicitly supporting Trump’s views about the mendacity of the news media. Donald Trump has expertly exploited the idea that the news media can’t be trusted to provide accurate information, from the constant refrains of “fake news” to references of the “Failing New York Times.” Trump has enough success sowing distrust of the news media and has support from liberals.

The next time you or a friend sees breaking news about some event and assume that it isn’t being covered in your preferred news media (at the time you go looking for it), keep in mind that your experience may not accurately represent what’s out there. Just because you’re not seeing it doesn’t mean it’s not there.

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Jun 152019
 

I was recently in Puerto Rico shooting an episode of “Expedition Unknown.”

I can’t give many details before the show airs, but here’s a photo of me with host Josh Gates interviewing an eyewitness to something weird….

Jun 092019
 

New episode of Squaring the Strange is out, thanks to Pascual and Celestia, I just bring the doughnuts. Enjoy this longer-than-usual episode with four thrilling topics! Is 5G more dangerous than Flavor Flav? Should we breed shark-cats to protect us from cancer AND bad juju? What’s the worst possible way to design a study testing ghost EVPs? And should we trust weather reports from 1917?

You can hear the show HERE!

Jun 052019
 

My new CFI blog is out! I take a brief look at the folklore behind the genie in ‘Aladdin,’ and explain how Disney’s “genies” came from Arabic “jinn.”

With the much-hyped release of the new version of Disney’s Aladdin, I thought it would be interesting to take a brief folkloric look at genies and jinn.

Jinn (or djinn) refers to creatures that appeared in medieval Arabic folklore; they were usually depicted as threatening and free-willed—so dangerous in fact that rituals and amulets are and were used to protect against them. Though belief in jinn predates the creation of Islam, the creatures are referenced in the Koran; Allah created three types of beings from three substances: humans (made of earth); angels (made of light); and jinn (made of smokeless fire). Many Muslims around the world today believe in the literal existence of these jinn, much as many Christians around the world believe in the literal existence of angels.

In his book Legends of the Fire Spirits: Jinn and Genies from Arabia to Zanzibar researcher Robert Lebling notes that “jinn are taken seriously and regarded as real, tangible beings by a large segment of the world’s population…. They often appear humanoid or even human but possess amazing powers we lack. They can change their shapes, can fly through the air, and even can render themselves invisible.” Jinn are sometimes blamed for unexplained minor health scares, accidents, and misfortune. Like spirits and demons, jinn are said to be able to possess humans and can be exorcised from the human body through rituals. Jinn are believed, like ghosts, to sometimes haunt buildings, homes, and other locations. They are associated with wind and fire.

Genies, on the other hand, are the Westernized, commercialized, and often sanitized versions of the jinn, such as the genie in Aladdin. Jinn are not particularly known for their Aladdin-like wish granting (though they can be commanded to carry out tasks by those schooled in the magical arts); that aspect is much more closely aligned with genies—perhaps best known to American audiences in I Dream of Jeannie and Aladdin.

You can read the rest of the article HERE.

And for much more listen to the episode of Squaring the Strange we did on the topic; it’s HERE!

Jun 042019
 

My new CFI media literacy article examines the demographics of American mass shooters. Many people believe that most mass shooters are white males, but in fact it varies by type of shooting; there is no single representative or predictive demographic, other than being male: “Singling out any specific race as being dangerous—or, worse yet, highlighting rare anecdotal violent incidents as representative of larger groups—is more likely to fuel racism than help the public.”

With the recent tragic attacks against Muslims in New Zealand by an Australian white supremacist, the world once again turned its attention to mass shootings. It’s a subject that has captivated America for years with little progress in understanding the nature of the problem.

The topic of mass shootings is fraught not only with political agendas but also with rampant misinformation. Facile comparisons and snarky memes dominate social media, crowding out objective, evidence-based evidence and analysis. This is effective for scoring political points but wholly counterproductive for understanding the nature of the problem and its broader issues.

The public’s perception of mass shootings is heavily influenced by mass media, primarily news media and social media. In my capacity as a media literacy educator (and author of several books on the topic, including Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us), I have in past articles for the Center for Inquiry attempted to unpack thorny and contentious social issues such as the labeling of terrorists (see, for example, my April 2, 2018, Special Report “Why ‘They’ Aren’t Calling It ‘Terrorism’–A Primer”) and the claim that “the media” isn’t covering certain news stories because of some social or political agenda (see my November 9, 2018, piece “’Why Isn’t The Media Covering This Story?’—Or Are They?”).

You can read Part 1 HERE, and Part 2 HERE.

Apr 192019
 

This week we take a quick look at the Momo challenge’s resurgence and surprisingly mainstream fall; then for our main segment we dive back into the strange, sketchy world of Ed & Lorraine Warren. These opportunistic and not-exactly-truthful storytellers are a big reason the modern horror genre looks the way it does. Erik Kristopher Myers joins us once more to go through some of their biggest “cases”: The Demon Murder Case, Amityville, and the hauntings behind the more recent Conjuring movies.

We look at what writers and other investigators who have worked with the Warrens had to say, and we examine the fallout that real-life people end up having to deal with as a result of the sensationalized tales of hauntings.

You can listen to the whole delightful episode HERE!

Apr 192019
 

I saw this meme recently, it’s a Cuban art project about exploited children. However one of the photos, bottom left, is based on an urban legend.

The artist is trying to raise awareness of child organ trafficking, but it doesn’t actually happen. I’ve researched, written about, and debunked this myth. There are organ *sales* in some countries (e.g., India and Pakistan), but they are voluntarily sold by adults.

Children’s organs are unusable by adults, so there’s no real demand for them on the black market. The irony is that this myth has actually been used to increase fear and hatred of foreigners—it’s exactly the sort of conspiracy Trump would use. It’s an interesting piece but unfortunately perpetuates harmful myths.

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! 

Apr 182019
 

In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here’s a look back at a show you might have missed…

This week, Ben and Pascual dig into the legend of Kuchisake-Onna, aka the Slit-mouthed Woman. From the origins of her terrifying story to the modern day pop culture references, the guys explore every creepy detail.

Also in this episode, Ben is skeptical of what makes something fictional “problematic” and just how serious the implications are. You can hear the episode HERE!

Apr 152019
 

In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here’s a look back at a show you might have missed…

While Pascual recovers, Ben and Celestia discuss outrage over the hypothetical new product “Lady Doritos.” Then we go over Ben’s investigation of a staircase in Santa Fe said to have been built by Saint Joseph in answer to the prayers of the Sisters of Loretto. Lacking a central support, the stairs are the focus of several legends and are said to have no scientific explanation. Upon systematic examination, and with the help of dogged historian Mary Straw Cook, Ben unravels the mystery and gives credit to a long-dead carpenter.

You can hear the show HERE.

Apr 122019
 

On Squaring the Strange: Bad Cryptozoological Arguments! There’s a lot of fertile ground here that can be tilled in the name of learning how to spot bad arguments in other walks of life. Let’s look at how squatchers and lake-monster enthusiasts back up their claims and shut down skeptics (or do theyyyyy?) With a few special guests!

You can listen to the episode HERE!

Apr 102019
 

Recent news reports claimed that most people intentionally disrespect transgendered individuals by calling them by something other than their preferred gender pronoun. For example one piece began: “Three in five people internationally report that they would intentionally misgender a transgender person, according to a recent survey. Ipsos found that only two out of five people in Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and the United States said they would call a trans man ‘he’ and a trans woman ‘she,’ instead of misgendering them.”

Written by Jeff Taylor for LGBTQ Nation, the article’s headline is “3 in 5 People Will Deliberately Misgender a Trans Person to Show Disrespect.”

Fortunately for trans people—though unfortunately for Taylor’s journalistic credibility—it’s not true.

For clarification we can go to the original study—the LGTBQ Nation article conspicuously did not provide a link—and look at what the questions and results were. We can begin by noting that the findings of the study bear little relation to the headline. In fact the study says nothing at all about the misgendering being either “deliberate” or intended to “show disrespect.”

The results vary slightly by country and whether the subject is a transgender man or transgender woman (see the graphs below), but for example we see that in the United States, the majority of Americans (38%, the single highest response) would refer to a trans man with a masculine pronoun, while about half that percentage, 21%, would refer to the person using a feminine pronoun. A slightly larger percentage, 23%, said they didn’t know how they would refer to the person, and a minority (18%) said they would refer to the person using a gender-neutral pronoun.

It doesn’t clarify whether any misgendering is intentional. It’s a subtle distinction, but the question doesn’t ask people what pronoun they would use when addressing a transgender person, but instead “when speaking about” him or her. Thus without context we cannot know whether that usage is motivated by intent to show disrespect or simply not knowing what the hypothetical trans person’s preference is. They may misgender people accidentally, or because they are unsure of the person’s preferred address, or out of hostility, or because they simply aren’t aware of the proper etiquette.

We cannot assume, as Taylor seems to, that any response other than the pronoun that aligns with how the persons lives and dresses—such as a neutral pronoun or “I don’t know”—necessarily indicates an attempt to deliberately misgender anyone. To do so is misleading at best and fearmongering at worst.

For more on this, see my CFI blog HERE.

Apr 082019
 

On the new episode of Squaring the Strange, Celestia and I pick three personality assessment tests from psychology’s past and present, doing a deep dive into their origins, what drove their popularity, and consumer’s reluctance to give them up even after serious flaws emerged. Looking at phrenology, the Rorschach test, and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a fascinating tour of how consumerism can leapfrog skepticism when it comes to a topic we all love–ourselves!

Check it out HERE!

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Mar 302019
 

Long before TV ghost-hunting dudebros terrified of their own shadows, there was Eleanor Sidgwick, the original badass female ghostbuster. My article for Discovery News (now Seeker) on her is 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! 

Mar 282019
 

I’m seeing a lot of confusion on social media about definitions of “terrorism” and why certain people/groups are/are not labeled “terrorists.” Simplistic memes aside, the topic is a bit nuanced but worth understanding. I wrote about it last year, for those who’d like a deeper dive.

The issue is not terribly complicated, but it is nuanced and often counter-intuitive. Part of the confusion stems from which group you’re talking about. In other words, who’s the “they” in “Why aren’t they calling it terrorism?” Different “theys” have different answers, as we will see. One of the first things a critical thinker learns to do when hearing the phrase “They say…” is to ask: Who, exactly, is “They?” Attributing a position or statement to an anonymous, homogenous group is not only clouds the issue instead of clarifying it but often steers the conversation toward any number of fallacies (They say acupuncture has been used for thousands of years. They say that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and so on).

There’s also the problem of people using different definitions of “terrorism” interchangeably. Like many words, terrorism has a legal/technical definition used for specific purposes (such as indicting a suspect on certain criminal charges) and a looser, more informal definition that laypeople use in everyday conversation. Neither definition is incorrect; they’re both valid and useful in their specific contexts. There is of course nothing unique about this; laypeople use countless terms (energy, tension, heat, etc.) in ways that are different than a physicist would use them, for example. This problem often arises in the legal arena—one in which definitions of terrorism are important. For example the lay public may consider any killing to be murder (after all, someone died), but to a district attorney there are many different types of murder, with different definitions and penalties (first-degree murder, manslaughter, negligent homicide, and so on). Language is flexible, but that flexibility can contribute to ambiguity when people don’t clearly define terms, or apply their personal, informal definitions to other contexts.

So let’s distinguish between the formal and informal definitions by using Terrorism and terrorism, respectively.

The Patriot Act defines domestic terrorism as an attempt to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.” (Whether one thinks that this definition is too broad or too narrow is beside the point here; law enforcement follows the laws as written.)

As an NPR article explains, “there isn’t a federal charge of ‘domestic terrorism.’ The Patriot Act’s definition gives the Justice Department broad authority to investigate an individual or any group a suspect might be affiliated with. But the federal law doesn’t come with an actual criminal charge. To be charged with terrorism, a person has to be suspected of acting on behalf of one of nearly 60 groups that the State Department has declared a foreign terrorist organization. Some are well-known, including the Islamic State and al-Qaida, while others are far more obscure. Most, but not all, are Islamist. A person who carries out a mass attack and survives can face a range of charges, but unless the person is linked to one of the banned groups, a federal terrorism charge won’t be one of them.” This would be a formal, legal definition of Terrorism.

Of course, as the examples above illustrate, the American public rarely uses the legalistic definitions of common words such as terrorism. A friend of mine recently posted this widely-held sentiment on Facebook: “Despite it not being the legal definition, I’m completely fine with calling someone who makes an effort to scare, maim, and kill numbers of people a terrorist.” Let’s call this broader definition terrorism with a lowercase t.

With that in mind let’s break down and unpack the question: “Why aren’t they calling it terrorism?” In order to meaningfully answer that question you need to specify who you’re talking about, and which definition of terrorism you’re referring to.

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! 

You can find the rest HERE.

Mar 252019
 

There’s a new drug panic in town, and it’s not crack or opioids. It’s catnip. 

Well, it’s called “Catnip Cocktail,” and it actually contains no catnip. It contains a non-FDA-approved blend of a variety of chemicals including caffeine and something called 1,4-BD, which allegedly metabolizes into sedative akin to RHB, a “date-rape” drug. 

Marketed as “The Ultimate Mood Enhancer for Your Dogs and Cats,” it is touted somewhat ambiguously as having “Helpful pain relieving properties,” with “Non additive [sic] ingredients” (it presumably meant to say “non-addictive”). Curiously, the websitedoes not offer testimonials of effectiveness, either from licensed veterinarians or from dogs and cats themselves. 

It’s not clear who manufactures Catnip Cocktail, but any rate for only $22.50 per bottle plus shipping you too can get your hands on the hottest new recreational drug, or pet mood stabilizer, or whatever it is. 

According to theSan Jose Mercury News, Catnip Cocktail has been linked in some way to “several incidents where police in the northern New Jersey suburb encountered alarming behavior from people who appeared to be under the influence of the little-known drug. On Thursday, the Fairfield Police Department announced that they had raided Nutrition Zone and seized 61 bottles of Catnip Cocktail, along with other contraband. ‘This is a very dangerous product and it appears its improper use is on the rise,’ Fairfield Police Chief Anthony Manna said in a statement. ‘In executing today’s search warrant, the Fairfield Police Department has sent a clear message that we will do whatever we can to assure that Catnip Cocktail does not become the next drug fad.’” 

It may be too late: The Business Insideroffered an alarmist headlinewarning that “A dangerous drug called Catnip Cocktail is on the rise—and it’s driving people mad.”

Media Drug Panics

The way this story is unfolding is reminiscent of previous “new” drug scares. In 2007 news media covered bogus news stories such as jenkem(a hallucinogenic inhalant drug made from fermented feces that, according to alarmist news stories spread by trolls, was widely used among schoolkids). And of course there’s the debunked myth ofvodka-soaked tampons(reported by otherwise reputable news media including ABC News) being used by college women trying to get drunk quickly. Then there’s the “eyeball-licking fad”of 2013, a “dangerous new trend” among Japanese schoolchildren supposedly licking each other’s eyeballs and in the process supposedly spreading the highly contagious disease pink eye. Kids today.

In 2012 Florida man Rudy Eugene was accused of attacking a homeless man and biting his victim’s face and ripping his flesh until police shot him. Rumors and news stories claimed that Eugene was high at the time on a narcotic called “bath salts” (which is not a single, specific drug but instead a group of drugs containing mephedrone). This led to wild stories about the dangers of “bath salts,” including the suggestion that it would turn users into flesh-eating zombies—buttoxicology tests later revealedthat the only drug in his system at the time was marijuana. He may or may not have used bath salts before, but he wasn’t on them at the time. 

We see this same pattern in the current “Catnip Cocktail” stories: A handful of people who were found to be acting strangely, allegedly while in possession of vials of the animal sedative, but where there’s little or no evidence (in the form of toxicology reports, for example) that they were under the influence of them. 

In fact there’s reason to be skeptical of news stories linking the arrested individuals to the drug, because police have claimed that it has effects similar to GHB, which is a depressant. Its effects include drowsiness, loss of muscle control, and slowed heartbeat. But many of the incidents where users are suspected of being on Catnip Cocktail suggest theopposite, that they’re on a stimulant: dancing, euphoria, yelling, erratic behavior, and so on.

Many drug users mix substances, making it difficult or impossible to pharmacologically determine what drug caused what effect. If a person has meth, marijuana, and Catnip Cocktail in their systems, how do we know what effect, if any, the Catnip had? We have a half-dozen or so incidents which may, or may not, be actually linked to “Catnip Cocktail.” 

The “Catnip Cocktail” is being cast in news reports as a “dangerous new trend on the rise,” but again it’s hard to know how accurate that is. Without hard data about how many off-label (human) users and usages there are, there’s no way to know. If there have only been a few dozen cases of this illicit usage, then a half-dozen incidents is huge. If on the other hand there have been tens of thousands, or millions, then it’s a much smaller threat. We simply don’t have data, either in terms of drug usage or arrests, to support the claim that this is a dangerous new trend on the rise that the public need be fearful about. A handful of cases with some tangential connection to the drug doesn’t really translate into a “dangerous new fad.”

It’s entirely possible that some people are using the drug to get high—or to tryto get high, based on its reputed effects (such as those currently being hyped in news stories). In other words even if the drug has little or no real pharmacological effects in humans, there are some people who will try it anyway, looking for a cheap or new high. There are many media-created panics—usually involving some form of rumor and folklore—and Catnip Cocktail seems to be among them. 

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! 

Mar 222019
 

There’s a new drug craze going around, called Catnip Cocktail, allegedly the latest thing since jenkem and “bath salts.” In fact I was recently interviewed by “Rolling Stone” magazine about it; you can read it HERE.

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

Mar 192019
 

Thanks to Daniel Loxton for his thorough, well-written, and fair review of my award-winning book “Investigating Ghosts” in the new issue (23)4 of Skeptic magazine!


If you’re interested in checking out my book, it’s available on Amazon.com and elsewhere, including in audiobook format!

Mar 122019
 

This week on our show Squaring the Strange, we start by looking at a Newsweek headline that’s been circulating again recently, implying that one-third of Americans doubt the death toll of the Holocaust. Then we devote our main segment to an important essay that has become both style guide and etiquette manual to skeptical writers and critics. Ray Hyman, one of the original founders of CSICOP, outlined eight principles to follow when engaging in “proper criticism” of paranormal claims. “Hyman’s Proper Criticism,” as it is known, applies more broadly to any topic, really, and becoming familiar with these eight lessons will make you a better human being.  

You can hear the episode HERE.

Please subscribe and consider donating!

Mar 102019
 

I was recently a guest on ‘Edge of the Rabbit Hole‘ show, talking with Mike Ricksecker and Shana Wankel about ghost investigations. A fun and respectful discussion, check it out!

You can watch the episode 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! 

Mar 062019
 

In the new issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine I investigate the legend that Egyptian mummies were used as fuel in locomotives, with an illustration by Celestia Ward!

Q: Today I heard a speaker repeat the story that mummies were used as fuel in British trains. I recall this was a classic legend first related by Mark Twain in The Innocents Abroad, but the speaker insisted that she thoroughly researched the subject, and it was true. Got anything on this?

–B. Dail 

A: This bit of morbid historical curiosa, suitably limned with anti-colonial themes, has been around for over a century and reported as true by a handful of writers. Discovermagazine writer LeeAundra Temescu wrote in 2006 that “During a railway expansion in Egypt in the nineteenth century, construction companies unearthed so many mummies that they used them as locomotive fuel.” This factoid inspired poet Charles Webb to write a piece titled “Mummies to Burn” for Slate.com in January 2010.

There is no evidence at all that mummies were burned in locomotives, and Dail correctly identified the origin of the myth. Cecil Adams of The Straight Dopereceived a similar query in 2002 and replied in part, “What you heard was a mangled version of a classic joke told by one of the masters of the art. But don’t feel bad—people have been falling for this one for more than 130 years.” Some people, apparently unaware of Twain’s penchant for humor and hyperbole, took his comment literally or as “reporting.” For example Joann Fletcher (2011), an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of York and part of York’s Mummy Research Group, in an article for no less an authoritative source than BBC, wrote that “Even less fortunate were those mummies exported to the U.S. for use in the papermaking industry or even, as Mark Twain reported, to be burnt as railroad fuel.” 

For more, see the current issue of Skeptical Inquirer!

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! 

Mar 022019
 

On a recent episode of Squaring the Strange, we start with a discussion of assumptions about media stories you may have heard. Then we move on to miracle oils and ointments, including snake oil, witch ointment, essential oils, Lorenzo’s oil, and CBD oil. What’s the lure behind easy, supposed panaceas in the form of some kind of concentrated oil that are rumored to cure everything? Please check it out!

You can listen HERE, or better yet subscribe on iTunes or elsewhere!

Feb 282019
 

My recent blog examines a popular meme about the “true” inspiration for the Lone Ranger, an amazing lawman named Bass Reeves. I looked into it, curious to see if it was true, but soon found myself in a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories–and examining why skeptics unknowingly help share them.

Several friends of mine recently posted a meme on social media that read, “Did you know the real LONE RANGER was a BLACK MAN name BASS REEVES and yes he did live among the INDIANS, The Lone Ranger ‘could not be cast in that era as a black man, so he was made into a white man with a black mask, Now you know…”

As a teenager I met the main actor who played the Lone Ranger on television, Clayton Moore (I have his autograph somewhere). It was at a public appearance in California and during a short Q&A someone asked about the origin of the character he played. As I recall he discussed it coming from old radio serials, along with other cowboy heroes such as Tom Mix. He didn’t mention anything about the character originally being African American, though I don’t necessarily attribute any racism to that, as it was a quick question about his TV show, and he wouldn’t necessarily have done so in that forum anyway.

The claim in the meme certainly seemed plausible, and I spent a few minutes checking its accuracy. After consulting three or four credible sources I realized that the claim is partly true. The first half of the sentence is partly accurate: Bass Reeves, the black man pictured, was indeed an amazing historical figure. He was a Texas deputy marshal said to have arrested more than 3,000 people and killed over a dozen criminals, sometimes going undercover in daring exploits in Indian country. An article for History.com offers a good overview of this fascinating man.

It also concludes that “Although there is no concrete evidence that the real legend inspired the creation of one of fiction’s most well-known cowboys, ‘Bass Reeves is the closest real person to resemble the fictional Lone Ranger on the American western frontier of the nineteenth century,’ [Reeves biographer] Burton writes in Black Gun, Silver Star.”

Cinema researcher Martin Gram also debunked the claim, adding that “Proof was found that The Lone Ranger was intentionally patterned off of Robin Hood and Tom Mix…While the real life of Bass Reeves deserves to be better known, it is unfortunate that this fanciful ‘inspiration for the real life Lone Ranger character’ theory is what has brought him additional attention.”

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! 

Feb 282019
 

A nice review of my book “Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits” (now available on audiobook by the way) is now out, by Marcus Seda, and can be read on “Adventures in Poor Taste”!

Ghost and paranormal investigations were considered a “mainstream intellectual pursuit” in the mid 1800s. This was during the advent of the Spiritualism movement, a time in which the first handful of ghost and paranormal investigation clubs were formed, primarily in British academia.  The most enduring of these groups is the Society for Psychical research, which still exists.

The heirs of these clubs and societies are the ghost hunting groups that have proliferated in the English speaking world in recent decades. Many of the first modern groups took inspiration from the work of Ed and Lorraine Warren, paranormal investigators who were active from the 1970s until Ed’s death in 2006. Today’s groups seem to be taking cues from their most recent predecessors, the ones they see on television.

One could rightly assume that the time and toil spent investigating the existence of ghosts should have produced good evidence by now. With over 150 years and thousands of investigators focused on the question, surely we should have some proof or solid data that points in the direction of spectral existence, right?

Unfortunately the answer is no, we do not… 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! 


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Feb 252019
 

The new horror film The Prodigy is about an evil child, and therefore follows a fairly predictable formula. The kid starts as a bundle of joy, then bad things happen but no one wants to believe the child did them, then the terror escalates as a parent or caregiver discovers a horrifying secret that leads to a dramatic climax—and a likely sequel. The genre has a rich and very popular tradition in cinema, including Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Bad Seed (1956), Village of the Damned (1960), the Omen series (from 1976), The Good Son (1993), Orphan (2009), Hereditary (2018) and many others.

In this case the story centers on Sarah (Taylor Schilling), a mother whose young son Miles (Jackson Robert Scott) is not only oddly advanced for his age (a blessing) but also seemingly possessed (a curse). It’s not just kids, of course; many films play off the assumed childish innocence theme, including those featuring seemingly harmless dolls (Child’s Play and Puppet Master, for example). It’s an intriguing premise, but one that’s been done before and therefore the challenge for filmmakers is finding a new way to tell an old story, a way to add a new twist. The Prodigy borrows heavily from the many demonic possession movies because—well, why wouldn’t you? If The Exorcist can create sequels and a slew of imitators, why not?

But demons have been done to death, so the screenwriter changed it up a bit. We can surmise the studio pitch as something like “It’s The Omen and Child’s Play—but with a twist! It’s not the Devil that possesses the boy, but another person’s spirit!” Translating from the sacred to the secular, a few characters were swapped out but their roles remain. Sarah takes troubled eight-year-old Miles to see a psychiatrist named Jacobson, who—armed with Rorschach projective ink blots and a firm belief in both hypnosis and reincarnation—soon becomes convinced that Miles is afflicted by “an invading soul.”

In the real world these would of course raise red flags; hypnosis is not a reliable guide to recovered memories or accurate biographical information about past lives, but instead a source of freeform fantasy and subjective feelings…

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! 

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Feb 182019
 

Rob Palmer, aka “The Well-Known Skeptic” recently interviewed my Squaring the Strange co-host Celestia Ward for a Special Article on the CSICOP Website. Here’s the intro:

 

In May 2018, Susan Gerbic published an article about her trip to New Mexico to speak about the Guerrilla Skeptics project for New Mexicans for Science and Reason, the local skeptics group. En route, she dropped by the Squaring the Strange podcast studios for a guest appearance. Susan’s article about her trip mentioned the podcast, but that was not the main topic; reading it left me with many questions. To learn more, I decided to interview one of the three people who make the podcast happen. Flipping my three-sided coin resulted in selecting cohost, content producer, and “SkeptiCrate sender-outer” Celestia Ward. Luckily—once I explained that I wasn’t just a random fan bugging her on Facebook but was a random CSI online columnist bugging her on Facebook—she happily consented to an interview.

When Squaring launched as a weekly podcast in April 2017, it had just a pair of cohosts: Ben Radford and Pascual Romero. Celestia was primarily the behind-the-scenes content producer, who made only short, sporadic “appearances” with a fortune-cookie segment. Eventually she became a cohost, converting the arrangement to a triumvirate and transforming the character of the podcast.

 

You can read Part  2 of the interview HERE. 

 

 

Feb 152019
 

Rob Palmer, aka “The Well-Known Skeptic” recently interviewed my Squaring the Strange co-host Celestia Ward for a Special Article on the CSICOP Website. Here’s the intro:

 

In May 2018, Susan Gerbic published an article about her trip to New Mexico to speak about the Guerrilla Skeptics project for New Mexicans for Science and Reason, the local skeptics group. En route, she dropped by the Squaring the Strange podcast studios for a guest appearance. Susan’s article about her trip mentioned the podcast, but that was not the main topic; reading it left me with many questions. To learn more, I decided to interview one of the three people who make the podcast happen. Flipping my three-sided coin resulted in selecting cohost, content producer, and “SkeptiCrate sender-outer” Celestia Ward. Luckily—once I explained that I wasn’t just a random fan bugging her on Facebook but was a random CSI online columnist bugging her on Facebook—she happily consented to an interview.

When Squaring launched as a weekly podcast in April 2017, it had just a pair of cohosts: Ben Radford and Pascual Romero. Celestia was primarily the behind-the-scenes content producer, who made only short, sporadic “appearances” with a fortune-cookie segment. Eventually she became a cohost, converting the arrangement to a triumvirate and transforming the character of the podcast.

 

You can read Part 1 of the interview HERE. 

 

 

Feb 122019
 

In case you missed it, episode 84 of “Squaring the Strange”  begins with a look at (non)investigation by an unnamed Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, then dive into the murky waters of Lake Okanagan in search of Canada’s most famous lake monster, Ogopogo! Please check it out!

 

 

Feb 082019
 

I was recently interviewed on “Radio Wasteland” talking about evil and scary clowns, based on my award-winning book “Bad Clowns.” Stop clowning around and give it a listen!

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

Feb 052019
 

My recent blog is about the tragic shooting of Jazmine Barnes days before New Years, and how mistaken eyewitnesses and mistaken assumptions led to the search for a non-existent racist serial killer in Houston….

On December 30, 2018, a seven-year-old Houston girl named Jazmine Barnes was killed when a gunman drove up next to the vehicle she was in and opened fire on its occupants. Her mother, LaPorsha Washington, was wounded; Jazmine was struck in the head and died on the way to the hospital.

As the New Year’s celebrations went on, the police made the case a top priority, and the case made national news. The police did have some leads. Jazmine’s older sister and other witnesses offered a description of the shooter: a white male, thirties to forties, with a light beard wearing a dark hoodie and driving a red pickup truck. Police immediately issued a sketch based on that description, later followed by an image from a surveillance camera that showed the red truck driving away.

The case holds several interesting lessons for skeptics, including about investigation, statistics, the reliability of eyewitnesses, confirmation bias, and finding patterns where none exist.

The police began looking for suspects based on a probability profile, examining the statistically most likely suspects given the circumstances. For example most people are assaulted and murdered by someone they know, so if a person is found dead the police begin searching for suspects among relatives and acquaintances before casting a (much) wider net to include strangers. One aspect of Jazmine’s murder was especially chilling: it was seemingly random, the attack unprovoked by any known confrontation that too often escalate—such as over money, love, or something as mundane as a parking space—into violence.

Given the victim profile, statistically the most likely suspect was African-American, specifically a black male; more than 80 percent of all crime involves victims and perpetrators of the same race. Whites and African Americans of course can and do attack each other, but they are the exception, not the rule. Medical professionals adopt the same tactic to rule out the more likely causes of headaches or back pain, for example, before screening for rare diseases. As they say, if you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras.

The Serial Killer Search

Despite police saying they were exploring all possibilities about the motivation, many in the community quickly attributed it to a hate crime. Houston activist Deric Muhammad held a press conference outside a Harris County Sheriff’s Office and suggested that the death of Jazmine Barnes was the work of a white supremacist serial killer.

Muhammad linked the girl’s death to a previous shooting, on August 30, 2017. In that case a 21-year-old black man, A’vonta Williams, was shot by a white male driving a Ford F-150 truck. Williams survived, but police were unable to make an arrest in the case.

Muhammad suggested that police incompetence (or refusal to investigate) played a role: “If A’vonta Williams’s shooter had been found, would Jazmine Barnes still be alive?” The link between the two attacks seemed not only plausible but obvious, and Muhammad invoked probability and statistics: “What are the odds that two black families were fired upon by a white male in a pickup truck within a one-year time span on the same block? We’ve got to call it what it is: Black people are being targeted in this country. Black people are being targeted in this county. Black people are being targeted in this city. We are thoroughly convinced that the killing of Jazmine Barnes was race related.” Kisshima Williams, a relative of A’vonta Williams, agreed, saying “It has to be the same person. It’s too similar.” Muhammad was not alone; Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee implored those gathered at a rally for Jazmine, “Do not be afraid to call this what it seems to be: a hate crime.” If the crime was indeed random—as it appeared to be—racism seemed a plausible explanation.

The question Muhammad raised is a fair one, though the odds are difficult or impossible to calculate. The two shootings happened about six miles apart, and were in different vehicles (the 2017 shooting involved a gray, silver, or white truck pickup instead of a red one, and an AR-15 style automatic weapon instead of a handgun).

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! 

Feb 022019
 

I’m a member of the SouthWest Writers group, and I’m featured in a new interview about some of my books and the process of writing…

 

What is your elevator pitch for Investigating Ghosts?
Investigating Ghosts is an in-depth look at scientific attempts to contact the dead, from historical, cultural, and folkloric perspectives. From Shakespeare to the Victorian era to modern-day ghost hunting, people have always tried to find ghosts, and this is a look at their methods and how to bring science to them. I’m open-minded but skeptical.

What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
This book is a culmination of about 20 years of research and investigation into the subject, and it’s probably one of the broadest topics I’ve written about. My previous books were often on narrower topics (such as New Mexico mysteries, the chupacabra vampire, and evil clowns) which allowed me to do a deep dive and analysis into them. But with ghosts, there’s an enormous amount of information I needed to tackle, from early ghost-based religions (such as Spiritualism) to ghost folklore, the psychology of a ghost experience, ghost hunting devices, ghost photos, the scientific process, and so on. In all these cases I wanted to bring something new to it, not just copy and paste information or third-hand sources but give readers factual, science-based information. That’s why there are eight pages of references; it’s not just a book of spooky, told-as-true ghost stories, but evidence-based analyses, including my own investigations. Even with all that, I couldn’t get everything into 320 pages.

What was your favorite part of putting this project together?
Throughout the book I describe my firsthand investigations, including many here in New Mexico. I’m not just an armchair investigator! I love to get out in the field, go to haunted locations, interview witnesses, examine evidence, and try to figure out what’s going on. So I enjoyed describing some of the investigations, for example at the KiMo theater, the Albuquerque Press Club, courthouses in Santa Fe and Espanola, the tiny town of Cuchillo, and so on. I have also done haunted house investigations for television shows in Los Angeles, Jamaica, Canada, and other countries. It’s part memoir, which was fun, and I’m especially pleased it won the New Mexico/Arizona Book Award.

You can read the rest of the interview 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!