Ben and Pascual kick off the 2017 New Mexico Podscape festival by musing on natural disasters and cryptids, for instance how Hurricaine Hugo in Puerto Rico helped spawned the chupacabra legend. Then, since a doomsday was recently predicted for the very day they recorded, Ben and Pascual discuss apocolypses (apocolypi?). Interpreting everything from astronomical lineups to hunting out supposed Biblical patterns, people have been predicting the end seemingly since the beginning. Ben recounts trying to interview an apocalyptic prophet one day after the doomsday he predicted, and harkens back to the 19th-century Millerites, who ended up splintering into the 7th Day Adventists after their predicted doomsday failed to show up. Then to wind up, Pascual talks about “psychic vampire repellant,” which can be yours for $28 on Gwynneth Paltrow’s website Goop. You can here 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!
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: Ben ruminates on the blowup over Trump’s NFL tweets this week, wondering why so many people (especially Trump’s critics) seem to give him more power by fueling the outrage machine, thus distracting themselves from the core issues. Owing to Trump’s clear track record of lies, exaggerations, contradictions, and impulse thoughts, perhaps the best skeptical approach is to not give his tweets any weight at all—as they do not represent legislative action, the views of most of America, or even, perhaps, Trump’s core values (if he has any). Then, for their main topic, the guys delve into conspiratorial thinking: from medieval witch hunts to the Illuminati. What factors make people more prone to fall into believing conspiracies, and what are some hallmarks of a typical conspiracy theory? Why do proponents doubt some things so strongly but swallow every point made in an amateur Youtube video? It’s also valuable to examine what exactly is taken as evidence—and if, for argument’s sake, that “evidence” is true: does it really prove the theory put forth or is it simply one small strange thing likely meaning nothing? Finally, we run through a quick history of disseminating information, from the rise of the printing press to modern day. Cranks with conspiracy notions have gone from buying back-of-magazine ads and Xeroxing pamphlets (and in one case cementing tiles down on East Coast streets) to putting up websites and starting podcasts—and, alarmingly, being interviewed by mainstream journalists and quoted by the President of the United States. You can listen HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
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: Episode 24: Copycat Crimes This week, Ben is skeptical of the History Channel bland promise to be transparent and do more investigation on their recent Amelia Earhart fiasco (spoiler: they haven’t). For the main topic, the copycat effect, Ben talks about behavior modeling versus ideation, covering everything from fears of anorexia to the artistry of crop circles. Moving onto serious crimes, the guys discuss the church fires during the 1990s: after President Clinton addressed the issue and formed a task force, the fires actually quadrupled—most set by juveniles who had no clear motive. As parents know, the drive to copy and gain attention is clearly present in children, but some people never grow out of it. Certain instances were a perfect storm of copycatting: the Anthrax scare of 2001 resulted in tremendous anxiety and costs, as it was cheap and easy to fake with talcum powder while being expensive and time-consuming for authorities to deal with. The clown panic of 2016 was a less harmful (but to some, even scarier) example of copycat behavior and attention-seeking. Copycat suicide has many aspects to explore, from the self-immolation of political martyrs to recent concerns about the show 13 Reasons Why. Just like real-life events, there is always a risk that art can inspire some individuals to act in dangerous or criminal ways—but blaming the media for social ills is often too simple an explanation. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! This week we have an update on a flat-earth "experiment," then we talk treasures: hiding them, hunting them, and passing along rumors of them! Treasure hunting is rife with folklore and sometimes danger. People seeking riches have trespassed, committed crimes, and even died. From murdered casino magnate Ted Binion’s buried vault to Forrest Fenn (who claims he hid a treasure you can find with clues in a poem) to Arizona’s legendary Lost Dutchman Mine and Capt. Kidd's treasure, and more. Please check it out! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) comes upon its one year anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen! This week, content producer (and sci-fi nerd) Celestia Ward drops in at the start of the show to discuss the purported sexist outrage against Dr. Who being recast as a female. Looking at actual percentages versus the visibility of sexist troll comments, this sci-fi outrage has many components—from a modern boogeyman aspect to a false equivalency in reporting. Then the guys welcome their first-ever guest, Andrew Torrez of the Opening Arguments podcast. Andrew shares his legal experience and answers skeptic-related questions that involve the law. Many people who pride themselves on being skeptical about pseudoscience or conspiracy theories fail to question legal myths or ignore the consensus of legal experts. During the interview we learn about the motives behind misrepresenting the McDonalds hot coffee case, the nuances of “blocking” Trump’s travel ban versus postponing it for judicial review, how the media presents mistrials versus actual acquittals, systemic problems with the cost of pursuing justice, and potential complications with widespread use of police bodycams. Ben and Andrew discuss the notion of doubt, and what constitutes reasonable doubt (to skeptics and to jurors). You can hear 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!
As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) comes upon its one year anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen! Ben and Pascual again revisit the Blue Whale game panic and the two young people said to be the first victims of the game here in the US. The desire to find explanations for a child’s suicide, as well as confirmation bias, can lead grieving parents to wrong conclusions. Then for the main topic, Ben recounts his investigation of the Lizard Man of Scape Ore Swamp, a red-eyed, seven-foot-tall, automobile-munching cryptid allegedly dwelling near Bishopville, South Carolina. Christopher Davis, a teenager at the time, was the first to report the creature back in 1988, and his encounter is by far the gold standard—most sightings since then are merely reports of car damage attributed to the Lizard Man. Ben looks at Davis’s story and what factors lent it credibility, and whether that credibility was deserved. The details of the eye-witness account raise questions and have some testable aspects: such as seeing a blur of green reflected by red tail lights in the dark, or the speeds and distances involved with the reported pursuit. The human mind (especially after a working a long shift and having car trouble late at night) is capable of filling in details when given ambiguous input, and the Lizard Man seems a great example of this. Further, the damage to Davis’s car is not documented anywhere, and early reports claimed there was no more than a scratch on a fender—yet this aspect of the Lizard Man became a celebrated feature of the monster. You can hear 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!
As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) comes upon its one year anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen! This week Ben looks at some updates to the blue whale suicide game / moral panic discussed in episode 6. The death of Isaiah Gonzales has been attributed to the game on secondary media sources, but actual reports have no evidence supporting this. Pascual discusses the “cancer sunscreen myth” reported by Paul Fassa and sourced from NaturalNews.com. By completely misrepresenting a credible study, the article categorizes sunscreen as a dangerous carcinogen and urges readers to get more sun exposure for health benefits. It also contains a common red flag to watch for in bogus medical articles: make sure the doctor quoted is a medical doctor and any degrees listed are from accredited universities. Then Ben and Pascual discuss the main topic of pedantry. Being called pedantic is not ever a compliment, and skeptics frequently come under fire for this behavior. When is pedantry better avoided, and when is it beneficial? Ben points out the necessity of being a pedant when it comes to editing and publishing: articles should be fact-checked and errors corrected. Rather than aiming for a “gotcha” moment, good pedantry should aim to improve precision and sharpen an idea. The enemy of truth is often ambiguity—and this type of ambiguous communication is on display in President Trump’s statements, which seem deliberately vague and evasive (though he is certainly not the first politician to employ such verbal tactics). Law is another arena where specificity and pedantry is a foundational pillar, as vagueness or minor errors can have disastrous results. You can hear the show HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) comes upon its one year anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen! Ben looks closely at intuition and how it can be categorized as a type of confirmation bias. Pulling from news stories, we see many unfortunate things that intuition, if it existed, should have prevented; yet intuition is commonly credited as a force in stories where disaster is averted. Further, our intuitive instincts are often wrong, and people like pilots or other professionals receive specialized training to overcome these drives. Then Pascual looks at BBC’s Watchdog, which reported on ice machines containing fecal bacteria—the same bacteria that has been found in beards. Despite the disgusted alarm that the scary words “fecal coliform” bacteria can create, it’s actually quite common everywhere in human habitat, making that report a non-story. For their main topic, Ben and Pascual look back at the celebrated crop circle that allegedly appeared in broad daylight at 8:00 a.m. on July 7, 1996 in a field near Stonehenge. This crop circle had a number of factors that made it a “best case” to investigate: it was far too complex to have been created by natural means, it seemed to appear in a well-traveled area, and (according to witnesses) it showed up suddenly rather than manifesting overnight. Ben goes through his research and investigation process and lists how each factor fell away with applied scrutiny. After making a timeline and culling through everything each eye witness said, Ben found good reasons why each could be mistaken in what they remembered. Further examination of the site photos and topography also show how impossible it would have been to see the site from the road, as was reported. You can hear the show HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) comes upon its one year anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen! What are we skeptical of this week? Pascual deconstructs the viral story about women supposedly absorbing DNA from the sperm of every man they have slept with, which is a wild (and possibly slut-shaming) misinterpretation of the actual study on microchimerism. Ben looks at the recent shooting at a congressional baseball practice and, specifically, the immediate calls to label it (and many other shootings) terrorism. Who is responsible for decreeing a specific attack as a terrorist act, and what constitutes terrorism? For this week’s main topic, Ben and Pascual unpack the concept of nostalgia and why it should be looked at skeptically. In reality, the “good old days” weren’t so good—they were piled high with horse dung, rampant disease, and other woes. Even in our own lives, memory tends to hang onto the best aspects of a remembered time and forget the troublesome details. A song from our youth reminds us of the best things we experienced at that time, not the problems we had. People also love to complain about their own lives and current problems, and nostalgia is a way to impose the “grass is always greener” lament across time. Marketers also tend to pair recent history with good cues in order to bring about a warm sense of nostalgia in audiences, while the media tends to overhype all the catastrophic aspects of today in order to grab attention. Politicians do this too, to great effect: Make America Great Again, anyone? Pascual breaks down how people complain about “today’s pop music” and reminds us that bad or “manufactured” pop music is hardly a new thing. Just like memories, though, we cherry-pick: it’s the best music and best films of any era that tend to be carried forward, while the mediocre or downright bad from bygone times is quickly forgotten. You can hear the show HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
Check out last week's episode of Squaring the Strange! Celestia talks about the facial recognition errors involved in the "Crisis Actor" conspiracies, and then Pascual and I talk with Sharon Hill about skepticism and her new book on amateur paranormal groups, "Scientifical Americans." Join me in pitying the fools who miss this one!
A few years ago a shark researcher offered a new theory about what might be behind some of the world’s famous lake monsters. Bruce Wright, a senior scientist at the Aleutian Pribilof Island Association, wrote an article for the Alaska Dispatch newspaper that proposed an interesting idea: “For years, legendary tales from Scotland and Western Alaska described large animals or monsters thought to live in Loch Ness and Lake Iliamna. But evidence has been mounting that the Loch Ness and Lake Iliamna monsters may, in fact, be sleeper sharks.” Wright suggests that the sharks, which can reach 20 feet long and weigh more than 4 tons, might migrate through rivers and into lakes and be mistaken for monsters. The Lake Iliamna monster (known as Illie) is said to resemble a whale or a seal and be between 10 and 20 feet long. There have been fewer than a half dozen sightings of Illie since it was first seen in 1942. The best known American lake monster is not said to be in Alaska but instead in Lake Champlain, which forms the border between Vermont and New York. “Champ,” as the creature is called, has allegedly been seen by hundreds of witnesses and is anywhere between 10 and 187 feet long, has one or more humps, and is gray, black, dark green or other colors. The best evidence for Champ—in fact, for any lake monster—was a 1977 photo taken by a woman named Sandra Mansi showing what appeared to be a dark head and hump in the lake. Later investigation by myself and Joe Nickell revealed that the object was a floating log that looked serpentine from a certain angle. While Wright’s hypothesis is interesting, there are many problems with his theory, including the fact that both Ness and Iliamna are freshwater lakes, while Pacific sleeper sharks, as their name suggests, inhabit saltwater oceans. Some saltwater animals can adapt to brackish or fresh water (freshwater bull sharks and dolphins, for example), but there are no known freshwater sleeper sharks. Another problem with Wright’s shark-as-lake monster theory is that, despite his suggestion that “the monsters’ shape and colors usually match that of sleeper sharks,” in fact most descriptions of the monsters in Ness and Iliamna bear little resemblance to sleeper sharks. Many eyewitnesses suggest that the unknown aquatic monster in Loch Ness resembles a long-extinct dinosaur-like marine reptile called the plesiosaur. As for Lake Iliamna, at least one eyewitness reported that Illie had a prominent (3-foot-high) dorsal fin, while sleeper sharks have very low-profile dorsal fins, barely a bump on the back. Researcher Matthew Bille interviewed Illie eyewitnesses for his book Shadows of Existence: Discoveries and Speculations in Zoology, and believes that the most likely explanation for the monster is not a sleeper shark but instead a white sturgeon, which can grow more than 20 feet long: “the appearance of the White sturgeon-gray to brown in color, with huge heads and long cylindrical bodies—appears to match most Iliamna accounts.” Indeed, it would not be the first time that sturgeon have been mistaken for monsters. Bille notes that “Iliamna has 15 times the volume of Loch Ness. At the same time, it must be admitted there is no physical or film evidence for unknown creatures of any kind.” Such conclusions do not deter Wright; in fact he plans to organize field expeditions to Lake Iliamna and Loch Ness, hoping to find and tag any sleeper sharks he may find there. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
A snake-handling preacher who survived nine previous bites succumbed to his final, fatal bite in Kentucky in early February 2014. As CNN reported on February 18, “A Kentucky pastor who starred in a reality show about snake-handling in church has died—of a snakebite. Jamie Coots died Saturday evening after refusing to be treated, Middlesboro police said. On Snake Salvation, the ardent Pentecostal believer said that he believed that a passage in the Bible suggests poisonous snakebites will not harm believers as long as they are anointed by God.” Evangelical preachers like Coots not only handle venomous snakes but also engage in other dangerous activities such as drinking poison. They base their faith on Biblical verses in Mark 16: “And these signs will follow those who believe: in My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” Pastor Coots and his followers are Biblical literalists, believing that each and every word in the Bible is the true and inerrant word of God. This is a position that Bill Nye “The Science Guy” took creationist Ken Ham to task about during their January 2014 debate when Nye described the Bible as “verses translated into English over thirty centuries.” Even assuming that God wrote the Bible through men, all that copying and translating, Nye noted, leaves many opportunity for errors to creep into the verses. Thus the Mark 16 reference to snakes may simply be a metaphor, part of a well-known tradition of depicting Satan or evil in the form of serpents. Many evangelicals, however, take it literally. The premise behind snake handling is to demonstrate their faith, both to themselves and as an inspiration to others, by doing something dangerous. It just happens to be serpents because of a bible passage, but in theory the same ritual role could be fulfilled by drunk bullfighting or playing Russian roulette. Seeking medical attention for a snake bite is seen as a lack of faith in God’s ability to heal, a belief that can also be found in other religions including Christian Scientists and Scientologists. In many cases children have even died because their devout parents refused to take them to a doctor. Coots, though well-known because of his high-profile status on a popular television show, is far from alone in this practice. Though not common (and in fact illegal in many places), snake handling at evangelical events occurs on a regular basis. It’s not clear how many people have died from it—since official numbers are not kept and only high-profile deaths such as Coots are likely to make the news—but the victims likely number in the hundreds. Many wonder what effect Coots’s death will have on his followers. The most likely answer, surprisingly, is none. Their religious belief is what in logic is called non-falsifiable; that is, it can't be proven wrong or false. No matter the outcome of snake handling, it’s God’s will: if he gets bitten and dies, it’s fine because God called him home and it was his time to pass, and if he doesn’t get bit (or survives the bite) it’s because God protected him. It’s framed as win-win situation, so no matter the outcome it reinforces their religious beliefs. In fact it would be more surprising if Coots’s followers’ faith was shaken: After all, the whole point of serpent handling is about affirmation of faith; for them to lose faith because of what happened to him would be the ultimate betrayal. It’s not clear whether Jamie Coots’s son, Little Cody, will keep up the snake-handling tradition that killed his father, but it seems likely. In 2012 another well-known Pentecostal serpent handler, Mack Wolford, was killed in his West Virginia church after being fatally bitten by one of his snakes. Wolford’s father was also a snake handler, and he, also, was killed by a snake in 1983. Many greeted this news incredulously: Didn’t he learn a lesson from this? The answer is that of course he did; he just learned a lesson that’s different than most non-Evangelicals would take from this tragedy. Not that God wanted Wolford to die—and surely not that God doesn’t exist and left Wolford to his own devices when handling venomous snakes—but instead that Wolford’s faith was rewarded in heaven. While some have found dark humor in the irony of Coots’s death, the fact is that religious beliefs, like all other beliefs, have consequences. Coots, like religious zealots of all stripes, was willing to stake his life on the power of his faith, and he did. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
My Skeptical Inquirer column about the purported links between EMF fields and ghosts is now online! Many ghost hunters, including the T.A.P.S. team on the television show Ghost Hunters, use EMF detectors to search for electromagnetic fields because they believe that intense magnetic fields can create hallucinations, which in turn might create the illusion of ghosts. The basis for this theory comes primarily from research done by a Canadian cognitive neuroscientist, Michael Persinger. He found that hallucinations (such as out-of-body experiences) could be triggered by stimulating specific areas of the brain with fixed wavelength patterns of high-level electromagnetic fields... You can read the rest HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
My work has been included in the new edition of a university textbook on Abnormal Psychology. (No, I'm not a case study.) Cool! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
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.
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.
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.
I was recently interviewed for an article on why people believe in ghosts; you can read it HERE.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.