Apr 102017
 

A mysterious 310-foot-diameter crop circle that appeared in a farmer’s barley field in Chualar, Calif., as 2013 ended puzzled the public for more than a week. Echoing the sentiments of many, the field’s owner told CNN, “To be that intricate in design, it kind of baffles me as to how that was done.”Videos and photos of it went viral, and though some dismissed the crop circle as a hoax, others weren’t so sure. Some crop-circle experts wrote in-depth analyses that claimed to cleverly decode hidden meanings in the pattern, including that a bright comet would appear in the sky later in 2014…

 

You can read the whole story HERE. 

 

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

Jul 032016
 

Here’s an insightful piece by Sharon Hill from 2014 about attending a paranormal-themed conference; it mirrors my own experiences in many ways. 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.

Jun 302016
 

Last month a group of witches claims to have cast a curse on the man whose light sentence for sexual assault has outraged many in social media. I’m quoted briefly giving my two cents in the HuffPo article HERE. 

 

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

Jun 232016
 

A standup comic doing explicitly skeptical material on a regular basis as part of his act is unusual– and I interviewed him about his career. 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.

Jan 252016
 

Late last year I recorded about a dozen short (1-2 minute) segments for a NPR station on various skeptical subjects. Here are four of the audio segments now available on YouTube, on the subject of Chemtrail Conspiracies. You can find them HERE.

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

Nov 022015
 

In my over 15 years of investigations I’ve covered many dozens of claims of psychics and psychic detectives. Of those, about a half-dozen stand out as being particularly interesting or intriguing–not just yet another psychic making dubious claims, but some novel twist that at least suggests a closer look is needed to understand what’s going on. You can read about one of those cases HERE in my blog.

Oct 252015
 

 

In the wake of a shooting at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College that left at least ten people dead, President Obama held a press conference in which he stated that “Somehow, this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. We become numb to this.”

 

It’s an understandable lament.

 

There’s also no evidence that it’s true, and plenty of evidence that it’s false.

 

Is the reporting becoming routine? The news media, for their part, have a fairly standard template for reporting on mass shootings, and it’s not much different than the way it covers any other tragedy, from a natural disaster to an act of terrorism. It involves collecting the basic facts, speculation about causes and motivations, glowing biographies of once-promising lives tragically cut short, and so on. If you look at how the news media covered the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, it’s not much different than how it covered the Sandy Hook Elementary School or Aurora theater shootings nearly fifteen years later.

 

The emergence of the 24-hour news cycle and proliferation of cable news networks had an enormous impact on how stories were covered, but the idea that there is a “numbness” to media coverage of mass shootings is simply false. In fact if anything journalists go out of their way to avoid seeming callous or jaded to tragic news stories and devote significant airtime to exploring (some would say exploiting) the personal and communal grief in the aftermath of these events. Emotion and sensationalism—not numbness or treating mass shootings as “routine”—are coin of the realm in journalism.

 

So Obama is wrong about the reporting; what about the public’s reaction, the royal “we” who he claims become numb to these events? Once again Obama has misunderstood or mischaracterized the situation. Citizens of Roseburg, Oregon, where the shooting happened, are certainly not “numb” to the tragedy. As The New York Times noted, “One by one, the congregants of the Liberty Christian Fellowship took the microphone on Sunday, steadied their breaths and told stories of how a gunman’s rampage inside the community college here rippled through their lives… Nearly every person in this close-knit lumber town of 22,000 in the shadow of the Cascade mountains in western Oregon seems to know a victim or is related to someone who fled from gunfire that day. Everyone, it seems, has a terrible, personal story to tell.”

 

Nor is there evidence that the general public has become inured to mass shootings; instead of a collective shrug the Oregon shootings have spawned outrage around the world and on social media—spurred in part by hashtag activism among Christians. If, as President Obama claims, Americans have become “numb” and desensitized to routine gun violence and mass shootings, then this reaction is curious indeed. No one in America has shrugged their shoulders and said (or even suggested) that the latest shootings didn’t affect them because they’d heard and seen previous shootings. (Such a statement would be fodder for an Onion news article, though the satirical news source hasn’t used that specific angle yet.)

 

I wrote about this phenomenon extensively in my book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us, focusing on attempts to censor entertainment media content because of its claimed desensitizing effects: “Politicians pushing their constitutionally challenged quick-fixes and alarmist agendas often don’t even recognize the contradictions in their rhetoric. How is it, for example, that American teens on one hand are said to be desensitized to real violence through playing video games and watching violent films, yet in the next breath we are told that those same students are shocked and stunned by the violence in their schools and communities? If young people don’t think much of killing because they see gore and violence in the video games Doom and Mortal Kombat and watching The Matrix, they presumably don’t need the phalanx of psychologists and counselors that floods into schools after each shooting.”

 

I’m sure Obama meant well, and the president offering comforting commentary or words of solace—no matter how trite or even self-evidently wrong—is de rigueur for the job. I understand and sympathize with Obama’s frustration with both mass murders and Washington’s political inability to address the issue. Overall I share his belief that existing gun control laws are inadequate and should be stronger (though I also recognize that as a practical matter there is no way to stop shootings and murders).

 

Perhaps I’m being too harsh on Obama for engaging in a bit of hyperbole. After all, we all sometimes say things off the cuff that we don’t mean literally. But these were prepared comments delivered by the President of the United States about a grave and important topic, surely messages meant to be taken to heart. Perhaps usually eloquent Obama simply used the wrong words to describe his feelings and the nation’s reaction, but I do not believe for a minute that he has become numb to the deaths; instead I expect they weigh on him, as a president, as a father, and as a human being.

 

The fact is that there is little or no evidence that Americans, the news media, or anyone else is becoming numb to mass shootings, as Obama claimed. Murders are inherently horrific events, and the killing of innocent people by strangers is especially tragic. The inability to pass meaningful gun control legislation in America has many causes, but human indifference to mass murder is not among them.

Oct 182015
 

From the Radford Files archives:

 

Ali Sabat was condemned to die in early April. Sabat, the Lebanese host of a popular TV show, for years gave his viewers psychic advice and predictions. This may cost him his life. Many people around the world claim to foretell the future, talk to the dead, and do other amazing (if scientifically unproven) feats.

 

The problem is that Sabat is a Shiite Muslim, and many Muslims—like many fundamentalist Christians—consider fortunetelling occult and therefore evil. Making a psychic prediction is seen as invoking diabolical forces, perhaps even entering into a pact with Satan. Fortunetelling, prophecy, and other forms of divination have been condemned by Saudi Arabia’s religious leaders. In 2008, while on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, Ali Sabat was arrested by that country’s religious police, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. His crime: sorcery. Yes, people can still be accused of practicing witchcraft and condemned to death for it in 2010.

 

According to the human rights group Amnesty International, a court last month upheld Sabat’s death sentence, with the judges deciding that “he deserved to be sentenced to death because he had practiced ‘sorcery’ publicly for several years before millions of viewers.” He was scheduled to be publicly executed April 2, but his beheading was deferred. Sabat is not out of trouble; he did not receive a reprieve, merely a temporary stay of execution, and as of the writing his fate remains in question. In an ironic twist, Sabat might save his life if he confessed that his psychic predictions and powers were all a hoax (or an act merely for entertainment) and therefore not a true exhibition of occult powers.

 

 

This piece originally appeared in the Briefs Briefs column in the June 2010 Skeptical Briefs newsletter.

 

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

Oct 162015
 

From the Radford Files archives:

 

 

There’s an interesting new twist in the quest to lose weight: fake gastric banding surgery. These patients want the benefit of the surgery—in which a band is placed around the stomach to prevent overeating—but don’t want the risk of complications (or the scars). The solution? Pay a hypnotist to convince them that they actually had the surgery so that their bodies would be fooled into eating less.

 

A piece on ABC News profiled a woman named Lindley, who “said she lost 70 pounds in the first five months after her $1,077 mock surgery and hypnosis sessions, and is pleased with the results—at the very least she gained confidence that she could lose weight. According to a representative from the Elite Clinic about 470 mock gastric banding procedures have been done to date with 70 percent of the clients achieving some weight loss. Hypnotists Martin and Marion Shirran started what’s called gastric mind band hypnosis process in Spain three years ago, but hypnotists on this side of the Atlantic were keen to start on the project too.”

 

If this all sounds somewhat dubious, it should. The hypnotists seem to be relying on the well-known placebo effect, in which a fake treatment can (temporarily and under limited circumstances) have a real effect on health. But the placebo effect only works if the patient believes it is effective.

 

Neither the placebo effect nor hypnosis can “convince the body” that it had undergone gastric banding surgery, chemotherapy, or anything else. The stomach does not have a mind of its own and can’t be convinced, bribed, or fooled into doing anything. Lindley knew full well that she had not in fact had the fake surgery; she requested and paid for the procedure. Trying to fool a stomach into eating less makes no more sense than trying to fool nearsighted eyes into thinking they don’t need corrective lenses.

 

So what accounts for the weight loss by Lindley and others who have undergone this procedure (assuming it’s true and not just promotional claims)? The patients were paying more attention to what foods they ate, and in what quantities. It’s as simple as that. Most people don’t pay a lot of attention to what they snack on, and when people are asked to begin keeping a record of what they eat, they tend to eat less and lose weight. If these patients can change their lifestyles, eating less and exercising more, then the weight loss will be permanent. Of course, they could have done it with or without hypnosis and the fake surgery.

 

 

This piece originally appeared in the Briefs Briefs column in the June 2010 Skeptical Briefs newsletter.

 

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

Oct 142015
 

From the Radford Files archives:

 

In March, the Vatican began an investigation into miracles and appearances of the Virgin Mary at the famous Medjugorje shrine in Bosnia. According to an Associated Press report, “An international commission of inquiry headed by Italian Cardinal Camillo Ruini — a top adviser to the late Pope John Paul II — has been formed to study the case and report back to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican said in a statement.”

 

The “Miracles of Medjugorje” date back to 1981, when six teenagers claimed they saw a vision of the Virgin Mary on a hill near their village (then part of Yugoslavia). As sunset approached, they claimed, they saw a veiled woman appear in the sky, surrounded by a blinding white light. The woman carried an infant in her arms and did not speak but instead gestured for them to come closer. The teens ran back to their village, but no one else saw the incident.

 

The curious vision reappeared to the same group the following day, though this time she spoke, telling them what they all assumed: “I am the Blessed Virgin Mary.” After that, the same floating woman, child, and bright light appeared nearly every day for the next decade—each time only visible to the original group. The location changed often, and sometimes the Virgin Mary would tell the teens messages which they would then relay to local church authorities (and later to the huge crowds of devout followers gathered nearby).

 

So how would the Vatican go about investigating this miracle? The same way it investigates anything else: interviewing eyewitness, possibly doing tests, looking for physical evidence, and so on. Joe Nickell, in his book Looking For a Miracle, notes that the local Bishop, Pavao Zanic, at first embraced the Marian visions but soon grew to doubt the teens’ story after he began investigating. “Zanic found grounds for doubting the authenticity of the apparitions, including numerous contradictions in the children’s stories.” In fact, at the conclusion of his investigation, Bishop Zanic stated quite unequivocally, “The phenomenon at Medjugorje will be the greatest shame of the Church in the twentieth century. Once can say that these are hallucinations, illusions, hypnosis or lies.”

 

Perhaps due in part to Bishop Zanic’s earlier miracle investigation, the Vatican has yet to validate the Marian apparition or call the sightings a miracle. Still, more than 30 million people have visited the area in the past three decades despite its lack of official status—even as a shrine. Perhaps because of the continuing popularity of the site, the Vatican decided it was time to take another look at the “Miracles of Medjugorje.”

 

 

This piece originally appeared in the Briefs Briefs column in the June 2010 Skeptical Briefs newsletter.

 

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

Oct 122015
 

From the Radford Files archives:

 

A recent poll by Harris interactive found that 14 percent of Americans suspect that President Barack Obama may be the Antichrist. Nearly a quarter of Republicans, and 16 percent of Democrats, responded this way. Forty percent said they think Obama is a Socialist, and just under one-third believe he is Muslim.

 

If the statistics are valid, the number of people who believe that Obama is the Antichrist is alarming. For many people—especially religious fundamentalists— “the Antichrist” is not a metaphor. It’s not meant as a joke or hyperbole. They really, literally mean they believe that the President of the United States may either be evil incarnate (Satan), or the entity who fulfills Biblical prophecy as the adversary of Jesus Christ.

 

Yet a close reading of the Bible reveals an interesting discrepancy: According to Scripture, the Antichrist will try to deceive the public by claiming to work on God’s behalf. He will be a so-called wolf in sheep’s clothing, a duplicitious man of God pretending to do God’s work while instead furthering his own diabolical agenda.

 

President Obama has never implicitly nor explicitly claimed to God’s work. Though he has invoked God and religion on occasion, his presidency has been fairly secular. (Those people who believe that Obama is both a Muslim and the Antichrist have some mighty confused and contradictory theology.)

 

George W. Bush, on the other hand, repeatedly invoked God during his presidency. He was quoted in The Faith of George W. Bush as saying “I’ve heard the call. I believe God wants me to run for President.” Bush also said, “The biblical prophecies are being fulfilled. This confrontation is willed by God who wants this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a new age begins,” and that “I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn’t do my job.”

 

Of course George W. Bush is no more the Antichrist than Barack Obama is. Yet if what the Bible says about the Antichrist is true, Bush is a far more likely candidate than Obama. For the majority of Americans who are pretty sure that President Obama is neither a Muslim nor the Antichrist, it’s easy to mock such outlandish beliefs. But beliefs have consequences; in early April, nine self-proclaimed paramilitary “Christian warriors” were arrested in Michigan. They had been preparing for a battle with the government—and, ultimately, perhaps the Antichrist.

 

 

This piece originally appeared in the Briefs Briefs column in the June 2010 Skeptical Briefs newsletter.

 

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

Oct 082015
 

From the Radford Files archives:

In October 2009, a six-year-old boy named Falcon Heene was thought by many to have been floating alone through Colorado skies on Thursday in a silvery weather balloon created by his inventor father. It turned out that the whole incident was a hoax, staged by his parents in hopes of getting their own reality TV show. One issue that has been lost in the story is that a lying “eyewitness” was at the root of the story.

 

The fact that a large silver balloon flew in the air was, by itself, hardly worth noting. No, what propelled the story to international importance was the first-person eyewitness account of Falcon’s brother Brad. According to Sheriff Jim Alderman, police questioned Brad several times about what he had seen shortly before the balloon flew away. “He said he saw his brother climb into that apparatus and he was very adamant, they interviewed him multiple times and that was his consistent story.” At that point the concern became for the safety of the young boy, not an escaped balloon: Had he fallen to his death? Was he still aboard the balloon? He had been abducted? Where was the child?

 

Police were skeptical, but the boy repeated his story and insisted on the truth of what he’d seen. Many people (and journalists) probably thought, “Why would a child lie about something like that?” Much is often made of first-person eyewitness testimony in our society; indeed it is the basis for most ghost, monster, and other paranormal claims. Some people have even been convicted of crimes based on little more than one person saying, “I saw this happen.” But as this case reminds us, just because a person—even a seemingly guileless young boy— swears to have personally seen something, and consistently sticks to the story, does not mean it’s true.

 

 

 

This piece originally appeared in the Briefs Briefs column in the September 2009 Skeptical Briefs newsletter.

 

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

Oct 062015
 

From the Radford Files archives:

 

2012 Disaster Film Contains Pro-Science Themes

 

The recent big-budget Hollywood blockbuster disaster film 2012, directed by Roland Emmerich, depicts a global catastrophe and flood. John Cusack stars as a divorced Los Angeles writer who wants to reunite with his family, and ends up going (almost literally) to the ends of the earth to save them. At the same time in Washington D.C., a geologist discovers that the earth’s unsettled tectonic plates will cause havoc. Soon the whole world is enveloped in chaos and destruction.

 

Though 2012 is not a great film, it does have some interesting pro-science aspects that skeptics should appreciate. While John Cusack is the lead star, the hero of the film is really a black scientist, Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Helmsley is the president’s chief science advisor, and it is he who first discovers the impending danger. The film somewhat realistically portrays the difficulties of scientific uncertainty—how sure do you have to be to sound the alarm? This is not an academic question, and arises in discussions of scientific prediction on a wide range of topics ranging from asteroid impacts to global warming.

 

Not only is the scientist the hero, he is also the film’s major moral compass. There are no evil, white lab-coated scientists in 2012, there are only scientists doing their best to save humanity (and a few nerds thrown in for good measure). 2012 is a completely humanistic disaster film; the catastrophes are not the work of angry gods, nor magic spells, but nature itself. The film shows prayer failing miserably to stop the destruction (even the Pope in the Vatican gets smacked away; Emmerich told me he originally wanted to show Mecca being destroyed, but didn’t want to risk offending Muslims). In the end it is science that saves the day. These are wonderful pro-science depictions that I’d hope to see in more films; it’s a shame to see them buried in a well-meaning but bloated disaster film like 2012.

 

 

 

 

This piece originally appeared in the Briefs Briefs column in the September 2009 Skeptical Briefs newsletter.

 

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