Jun 202020
 

We’ve all seen it on social media, especially Facebook. Some friend, or “friend,” or friend of a “friend,” posts a news story. Because it’s social media, the story is often selected (by human nature and algorithms) for its outrage factor. Amid the kitten videos and funny or cute memes, the news stories most likely to be shared are those that push people’s buttons—sometimes good news but more often bad news, tragedies, disasters, and the obligatory political outrage du jour. 

You read the headline and may Like or Share, but in the back of your head the news story may seem vaguely familiar … didn’t that happen years ago? In a world of twenty-four-hour news, it’s hard to remember, and on some level a lot of the stories sound (or are) basically the same: Someone killed someone in a gruesome way or because of some toxic motive. Trump said something that provoked (real or feigned) outrage. Some country implemented some new law affecting minorities. And so on. Even if it happened before, it must have happened again. 

Not long ago you could be reasonably certain that news was in fact news—that is, it happened recently and was “new.” But one of the consequences of getting news filtered via social media (as more and more people do) is that news organizations are further and further removed from their audiences. On television, in newspapers, or on news websites, the information is direct; you’re reading what a journalist (who presumably has some credibility to maintain) has to say about some given topic. News editors as a rule value breaking news, not old news. Unless it’s a special case (such as an anniversary of some significant event) or a retrospective, old news very rarely appears on broadcasts or on reputable news sites except in clearly-designated archives. 

On social media, of course, news is filtered through our peers and friends. Often it’s legitimate “new news,” but increasingly it’s old news misrepresented, mistaken for, or disguised as new news. This is a media literacy challenge, because old news is often fake news and shared by well-meaning people. News sharing on social media is less about the content of that story than it is about symbolic endorsement, or what’s been called virtue signaling. Liking or Sharing a news story doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve read it—much less understand it or can intelligently discuss it—but instead it’s often used as a visual badge representing your social and political views. If you’re concerned about environmentalism, social justice, immigration, politics, or anything else you can remind everyone where you stand on the issue. It’s sort of like bumper stickers on the information superhighway.

The Epistemology of Fake News

To understand why old news is often fake news, let’s take a brief look at epistemology, or the nature of knowledge. All of science is subject to revision and further information; new studies and research may always throw “facts” into the “former facts” category.

Science does not deal in absolute certainties, and it is possible—despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary—that smoking does not cause lung cancer, for example, and that humans are not contributing to global warming. Decades of research have established a clear causative link between these variables (smoking and lung cancer, human activity and global warming), but they are not 100 percent definitive; nothing in science ever is. 

Facts are only true at a certain time and under a certain set of circumstances. But the world is constantly changing, in ways both miniscule and dramatic, thus a fact about the world is accurate as of that time. It was once a fact that there were forty-eight states in the United States, but that no longer a fact; there are now fifty (including commonwealths). It was once a fact that the capital of the African state of Rhodesia is Salisbury; but Rhodesia no longer exists, and therefore that fact is a former fact, or more accurately the fact has been slightly changed to maintain its accuracy: “The capital of Rhodesia was Salisbury” remains a true fact. 

The point is not to revel in pedantry—though I’ve been accused of doing as much—but instead to note that many facts that we have incorporated into our knowledge base have changed and may no longer be true. That Texas is south of Canada has been true my entire life, but that my friend Amy is unmarried has not (she got married a few years ago). There are countless other examples, and they show why “is” and “was” are important distinctions, especially when it comes to news stories. Rehashing old news as new blurs the line between the two, sowing unnecessary confusion about what is true and what was true at one point (but may no longer be). 

This does not at all suggest that facts are subjective, of course, or that each person (or political party) is entitled to their own facts. But keeping in mind the important caveat that many people don’t read past the headline of a given news story, we see that recycling headlines makes misleading people likely. People don’t constantly update their knowledge about the world unless they have to, and thus typically rely on old (often outdated) information. 

Samuel Arbesman discusses this issue at length in his 2012 book The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date. He notes that “Ultimately the reason errors spread is because it’s a lot easier to spread the first thing you find, or the fact that sounds correct, than to delve deeply into the literature in search of the correct fact … . Bad information can spread fast. And a first-mover advantage in information often has a pernicious effect. Whatever fact first appears … whether true or not, is very difficult to dislodge … . It’s like trying to gather dandelion seeds once they have been blown to the wind.” The best way to stop the spread of misinformation is Skepticism 101. “There is a simple remedy: Be critical before spreading information and examine it to see what is true. Too often not knowing where one’s facts came from and whether it is well-founded at all is the source of an error. We often just take things on faith.”

We all know that recycling is good in the context of natural resources, for example. Good ideas can be recycled, because, as they say, there’s nothing new under the sun, and what works (or doesn’t) at one point in time, in a specific set of circumstances, may work (or fail) at another time under a different set of circumstances. At one point, for example, developments for electric cars were prematurely proclaimed dead (as seen in the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?) but today is a growing business. News stories are a different beast. 

Recycling Bad News

The news media go out of their way to emphasize bad or alarming news (“if it bleeds, it leads”), but social media compounds the problem. For the past year or two, I’ve noticed news articles from reputable sources shared on Facebook and other social media as if they were recent. Articles from 2015 and 2016 have been revived and given a new life, often shared and spread by people who didn’t know (or care) they were recycling old news. 

This is misleading because the posts rarely if ever include the date, instead showing merely the headline and perhaps a photo and the first sentence. So when unflattering events about Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, or anyone else circulate, they are likely to take on a second or third life. Sometimes the events themselves are clearly dated (tied, for example, to election results), but it’s often political stories putting a prominent person in a bad light that tend to get recycled. A news story about a natural disaster is unlikely to get intentionally seen again, because no one benefits from fooling others into thinking that another devastating earthquake recently hit Mexico, for example. 

But a news story about a single specific incident of, for example, a Muslim group killing innocent Christians, or vice-versa, may be revived multiple times over the years, giving the illusion that the events keep occurring when in fact it may have been a one-time event. News organizations would not intentionally present past events as recent news, precisely because people assume that what they’re seeing in news feeds is both timely and important. Social media users, on the other hand, have no qualms about sharing old or misleading content if it promotes some pet social or political agenda. To conservatives, old news stories that make Obama or Clinton look bad are just as relevant and useful today as they were nearly a decade ago. To liberals, old news stories that highlight Trump’s corruption or incompetence are equally useful. (The Russians, for their part, are just happy to stir up divisiveness.)

Information can always be weaponized, but old news is by its nature often weaponized; it’s recirculated for a reason. It’s not information for the sake of knowledge; it’s information that misleads for a purpose and shared by those trying to support a greater good.

Whichever President’s Nazi U.N. Vote

To offer one example, a CBS News article titled “U.S. Votes against Anti-Nazi Resolution at U.N.” has circulated many times in recent months on Facebook, invariably accompanied by commentary about how it’s (another) example of Trump refusing to condemn Nazis and white supremacists. 

 

The news story is accurate—it’s just several years old and in fact occurred under Barack Obama. 

This opens liberals up to accusations of hypocrisy by conservatives: If voting against anti-Nazi resolutions is patently wrong, racist, and un-American, then where was the outrage when Obama did it? (This is of course a bit of a false equivalence fallacy, since Obama and Trump do not have similar histories regarding race relations—and to be fair, there are many perfectly valid reasons a country would refuse to vote for a measure that is otherwise worthy but may have unwanted attachments or obligations.) 

The point here is not to set up any false equivalence between the administration on this issue—nor, certainly, to defend Trump—but instead to illustrate how the psychological tendency toward confirmation bias can affect us. A “no” vote on an otherwise not-particularly-notable U.N. resolution takes on special social media newsworthy significance in a context and under an administration that has come under fire for similar accusations of racial insensitivity or even outright racism. In one context, it’s a non-event; in another, it’s a (in this case, false) data point in a constellation of incidents suggesting Trump’s support of white supremacy. 

News reports of racist attacks were often attributed to Trump’s influence, for example when a ninety-two-year-old Mexican man, Rodolfo Rodriguez, was attacked with a brick in Los Angeles and told to “go back to his own country.” His jaw was shattered and he suffered multiple broken ribs. I saw the story circulate in 2019 as recent news, with commentary that this was obviously a result of Trump’s latest racist comments—except that the attack had occurred over a year earlier, and the attacker was an African-American woman, Laquisha Jones. 

While it’s possible the attack was influenced by Trump, it’s unlikely and we should avoid the post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”) fallacy. Some ugly racial incidents clearly are, some may be, and some are not; lumping them together serves no purpose. One can certainly argue that Trump’s words and actions have encouraged racial divisiveness in America, but using that specific news article or incident as an example is simply false and misleading. 

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.” There are plenty of other factually accurate news stories that could have made the same point.

The same applies to all recycled stories; the process, not the content, is the problem, and you can be sure that were a Democrat in the White House, the use of old, fake news would be just as robust. Facebook is aware of the problem and has recently introduced a small red “Breaking News” icon that appears along with (actually) new news stories, to help users distinguish new from old. 

 

 

But the ultimate responsibility lies with each social media user, who is after all the curator of their own newsfeeds. People need to take responsibility for what they share and (explicitly or tacitly) promote on social media. Every hoax or misleading meme can be stopped from going further by diligent—or even half-assed—efforts to not mislead others. It could be as simple as adding a caveat to the post such as “From 2015, and still relevant.” 

But this of course requires the person to spend a few seconds verifying the date—which is easy enough; it can be done simply by clicking on the link and noting the date, or often by merely hovering the cursor over an active URL, which often reveals the date (see below). 

 

Very few people generate new content on social media (and a significant portion of those who do are part of organized misinformation campaigns); most simply and blindly pass along whatever information they receive. In today’s misinformation-marinated world, skeptics and critical thinkers must be vigilant if they want to avoid becoming part of the problem. Otherwise socially and media literate people routinely admonish others to check their facts and demand evidence while actively share misinformation themselves. People can complain about misinformation and disinformation from Russia and biased news media all they like, but change begins at home.

 

This article first appeared at my CFI blog in 2019 and remains sadly relevant; you can find it HERE

 
Apr 152020
 

For those who didn’t see it: A recent episode of Squaring the Strange revisited a classic mystery: The Bermuda Triangle! The Bermuda Triangle is a perennial favorite for seekers of the strange; Ben still gets calls regularly from students eager to ask him questions about this purported watery grave in the Caribbean. We look into the history of this mysterious place and a few factors that influenced its popularity. What does the Bermuda Triangle have to do with a college French class? And what does a new bit of 2020 shipwreck sleuthing have to do with the legend? The one thing the Bermuda Triangle does seem to suck in like a vortex is a kitchen sink of very weird theories, from Atlantis and UFOs to rogue tidal waves and magnetic time-space anomalies.

You can listen to it here! 

Apr 052020
 

In recent weeks there’s been many rumors, myths, and misinformation about the current coronavirus pandemic, Covid-19. One of the most curious is the recent resurrection of a posthumous prediction by psychic Sylvia Browne.

In her 2008 book End of Days, Browne predicted that “In around 2020 a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments. Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.”

This led to many on social media assuming that Browne had accurately predicted the Covid-19 outbreak, and Kim Kardashian among others shared such posts, causing the book to become a best-seller once again.

There’s a lot packed into these two sentences, and I recently did a deep dive into it. First, we have an indefinite date range (“in around 2020”), which depends on how loosely you interpret the word “around,” but plausibly covers seven (or more) years. Browne predicted “A severe pneumonia-like illness,” but Covid-19 is not “a severe pneumonia-like illness” (though it can in some cases lead to pneumonia). Most of those infected (about 80 percent) have mild symptoms and recover just fine, and the disease has a mortality rate of between 2 percent and 4 percent. Browne claims it “will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes,” and Covid-19 has indeed spread throughout the globe, but Browne also says the disease she’s describing “resists all known treatments.” This does not describe Covid-19; in fact, doctors know how to treat the disease—it’s essentially the same for influenza or other similar respiratory infections. This coronavirus is not “resisting” all (or any) known treatments.

She further describes the illness: “Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.” This is false; Covid-19 has not “suddenly vanished as quickly as it arrived,” and even if it eventually does, its emergence pattern would have to be compared with other typical epidemiology data to know whether it’s “baffling.”

You can read my full piece at the link above, but basically we have a two-sentence prediction written in 2008 by a convicted felon with a long track record of failures. Half of the prediction has demonstrably not happened. The other half of the prophecy describes an infectious respiratory illness that does not resemble Covid-19 in its particulars that would supposedly happen within a few years of 2020. At best, maybe one-sixth of what she said is accurate, depending again on how much latitude you’re willing to give her in terms of dates and vague descriptions.

Browne’s 2004 Prediction

But there’s more to the story, because as it turns out Browne made at least one other similar prediction with some significant differences. I discovered this a few days ago. I have several books by Browne in my library (mostly bought at Goodwill and library sales), among them Browne’s 2004 book Prophecy: What the Future Holds for You (written with Lindsay Harrison, from Dutton Publishing).

On p. 214, I found an earlier, somewhat different version of this same prophecy. Details and exact words matter, so here’s her 2004 prediction verbatim: “By 2020 we’ll see more people than ever wearing surgical masks and rubber gloves in public, inspired by an outbreak of a severe pneumonia-like illness that attacks both the lungs and the bronchial tubes and is ruthlessly resistant to treatment. This illness will be particularly baffling in that, after causing a winter of absolute panic, it will seem to vanish completely until ten years later, making both its source and its cure that much more mysterious.” 

Comparing this to her later 2008 version (“In around 2020 a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments. Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely”) we can see a few differences. 

It’s not uncommon for writers to revise and republish their work in different forms, sometimes changing or summarizing material for different formats and purposes. But in the case of predictions, it also serves an important, albeit unrecognized, purpose: It greatly increases the chances of a prediction—or, more accurately, some version of that prediction—being retroactively “right.” It’s one thing to make a single (seemingly specific) prediction about a future event; it’s another to make several different versions of that prediction so that your followers can pick and choose which details they think better fit the situation. 

Note that the earlier prediction—which said “By 2020” (a limited, much more specific date than “In around 2020,” which as I noted spans several years)—focused on “more people than ever wearing surgical masks and rubber gloves in public,” which was “inspired by an outbreak of a severe pneumonia-like illness that attacks both the lungs and the bronchial tubes and is ruthlessly resistant to treatment.”

It’s certainly true that surgical masks (and, to a much lesser extent, gloves) are much more common today than, say, in 2019, but that’s an obvious and predictable reaction—as Browne herself admits—to the outbreak she mentions. Had Browne predicted any respiratory disease outbreak and specified that more people would not react by wearing masks and gloves, that would itself be an amazing (if nonsensical) prophecy. While we’re on the topic of self-evident revelations, note that Browne’s phrase “Both the lungs and the bronchial tubes” is redundant and nonsensical, providing only the illusion of specificity, since bronchial tubes are inside the lungs; saying “both … and” is meaningless, like saying “both the face and the nose will be affected,” or “both the West Coast and California will be affected.” Either Browne doesn’t know where bronchial tubes are, or she assumes her readers don’t.

Note that “This illness will be particularly baffling in that, after causing a winter of absolute panic, it will seem to vanish completely until ten years later, making both its source and its cure that much more mysterious” was changed to “Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.”

Note that the qualifier “after causing a winter of absolute panic” was dropped from the earlier version—which is convenient for Browne, because the widespread panic surrounding Covid-19 didn’t begin in winter but instead in mid-March. (Of course, I’m not suggesting that Browne predicted in 2008 that her 2004 prediction would be wrong and changed the phrasing!)

Another noteworthy prediction dropped in the later edition was that the disease would seem to vanish completely after ten years, “making both its source and its cure that much more mysterious.” But “seeming to vanish completely” for a decade has nothing to do with whether “its source and its cure” are mysterious. The source of the outbreak has been pretty well established: Likely a meat market in Wuhan, China. The exact source, the specific name of the very first person that first had it (and where he or she got it from), the so-called Patient Zero, may never be known—not because it’s inherently “mysterious” but merely because epidemiology is a difficult task. 

It’s not clear what Browne means by a “cure” because viruses themselves can’t be “cured,” though the diseases they lead to can be prevented with vaccination. Like the common cold, influenza, and most other contagious respiratory illnesses, people are “cured” of Covid-19 when they recover from it. In any event, neither the source nor the “cure” (whatever that would mean the context of Covid-19) are “mysterious” by medical and epidemiological standards.

Browne’s Other Predictions

After I wrote a piece about Browne’s failed predictions, I soon received hate mail from many of her fans who defended the accuracy of her prophecy and demanded that I take a closer look at her predictions. So I did; many of her predictions are set far in the future, but I did find a few dozen in her book Prophecy: What the Future Holds for You that referred to events between the time the book was published (2004) and this year. Here’s a sampling, in chronological order:

• “There will be a significant vaccine against HIV/AIDS in 2005” (p. 211).

•  “The common cold will be over with by about 2009 or 2010” (p. 204)

•  “By around 2010, law enforcement’s use of psychics will ‘come out of the closet’ and be a commonplace, widely accepted collaboration” (p. 180).

•  “By around 2010, it will be mandated that a DNA sample of every infant born in the United States is taken and recorded at the time of the baby’s birth” (p. 182).

•  “In about 2011, home security systems start becoming common … The windows are unbreakable glass, able to be opened only by the homeowner … Doors and windows will no longer have visible, traditional locks that can be picked or tampered with. Instead the security system allows access … by ‘eyeprints’” (p. 169).

•  “There won’t be a successful manned exploration of Mars until around 2012” (p. 128).

•  “In around 2012 or 2013 a coalition of five major international corporations … will combine their almost limitless resources and mobilize a vast, worldwide, ultimately successful movement to revitalize the rainforests” (p. 105).

•  “By around 2014, pills, capsules, and even most liquid medicine will be replaced by readily accessible vaporized heat and oxygen chambers that can infuse every pore of the body with the recommended medications” (p. 209). 

•  “By the year 2015 invasive surgery involving cutting and scalpels and stitches and scars will be virtually unheard of” (p. 205).

•  “Telemarketers will have long since vanished by 2015” (p. 171).

•  “To give law enforcement one more added edge, by 2015 their custom-designed high-speed vehicles will be atomically powered and capable of becoming airborne enough to fly several feet above other traffic” (p. 190).

•  “The search for extraterrestrials will ultimately end in around 2018 … because they begin stepping forward and identifying themselves to various international organizations and heads of state, particularly the United Nations, NATO, Scotland Yard, NASA, and a summit being held at Camp David” (p. 127).

•  “By the year 2020 researchers will have created a wonderful material … able to perfectly duplicate the eardrum and will be routinely implanted, to restore hearing to countless thousands … Long before 2020, blindness will become a thing of the past” (p. 203).

•  “By 2020 we’re going to see an end to the institution of marriage as we know it” (p. 255).

•  “By about 2020 we’ll see the end of the one-man presidency and the costly, seemingly perpetual cycle of presidential campaigns and elections” (p. 135). 

•  “The year 2020 will spark an amazing resurgence in the popularity of the barter system throughout the United States, with goods and services almost becoming a more common form of payment than cash” (p. 140–141).

 

There’s more—oh, so much more—but you get the idea. Hundreds of predictions, mostly wrong, vague, unverifiable, in the distant future, some right, and so on. On p. 97 of Prophecy: What the Future Holds For You Browne claims that “my accuracy rate is somewhere between 87 and 90 percent if I’m recalling correctly.” Yet another failed prediction. 

 

Jan 082020
 

For those who missed it: The recent episode of Squaring the Strange is out! In this episode we talk about caricature and mysterious crystal skulls. Can we trust what Dan Ayrkroyd tells us on his fancy vodka bottle? Are there really thirteen of these ancient and powerful relics? What is the Skull of Doom, and does it have strange properties that baffle scientists? We even look at an ill-conceived lawsuit against Steven Spielberg involving the crystal skulls featured in a Indiana Jones movie. Check it out, you can listen HERE!

 

Jul 142019
 

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 this episode of Squaring the Strange, out now at the link 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! 

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 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!

Jan 112019
 

In the new episode of Squaring the Strange, we take a romp through a bunch of 2018’s more memorable skeptical moments. From a new iteration of the Mechanical Turk to deadly rumors in India to a resurgence of Geocentrism, there’s plenty to go around. We go over some of the more notable passings, and list some favorite episodes from the past year.

 

You can hear it HERE. 

Dec 082018
 

As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) has passed its 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!

 

 

First, Pascual is skeptical of mutating astronaut DNA, and looks closely at the media misinterpretation of a recent NASA press release. Then the gang discusses various ways that folklore is used to control behavior—a trick used on children and sometimes on the general public, too. We look closely at the Hispanic ghost La Llorona, a frightening tale that keeps children away from flood-prone river banks in New Mexico, and then some of her even scarier cousins, the Japanese kappa, who seem to have a fixation on human butts and cucumbers. Then all the way up in Iceland we meet the Yule cat, who eats children that don’t wear their new Christmas sweaters—but also teaches a host of other lessons.

You can listen to it HERE.

 

 

Oct 122018
 

This week we start with a discussion of Spike Lee’s BlackKKlansman movie and the notion of holding narrative movies “based on” real events to some imagined standard of full accuracy. Then all aboard for the ghost train express! Ben and Celestia discuss the lure of the locomotive (and train wrecks) in the American imagination, the flickering lights said to be distant spiritual echoes of trains, and the dangers of ghost-trainspotting on elevated trestles. I look into fabled “virtual underground” trains in Russia that have sprung up as folkloric pranks. We go over the legend of Abraham Lincoln’s phantom funeral train, and I recount a faked ghost train video.

You can listen HERE. 

Sep 302018
 

In this week’s episode we started with an announcement and then a look at a Bridezilla tale and a psychic mountain lion encounter. Then Ben, Celestia, and Pascual discuss skeptical burnout, a phenomenon that hits almost every skeptic at some point. What makes us susceptible to this kind of exhaustion, and how can we best fight against it? We all share some stories and outlooks.

 

You can hear the show HERE.

Jul 302018
 

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:

I know it’s the end of July but Halloween isn’t far away! This week, we dissect the myths and misunderstandings that surround Halloween. From tainted candy to evil predators, our boys take a bite out of these spooky Halloween treats so you don’t have to!

 

You can hear the show HERE. 

 

 

Jul 282018
 

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 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 read more about my investigation into this mystery in my book Mysterious New Mexico.

 

You can hear the episode HERE.

Jul 222018
 

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:

First, Ben looks at current failures of intuition and psychics. Then we take a skeptical look at tour guides! Tours straddle a line between entertainment and education, and tour guides happily embellish local legends and lore as time goes on. We welcome special guest Cindy Boyer from the Landmark Society of Western New York and chat about ghost tours. Pascual confesses to teenaged transgressions, and Ben recounts an egg-balancing lesson with a tour guide in Ecuador.

 

You can listen to the show HERE. 

Jul 202018
 

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, our boys look into the nature of curses and what it takes to break a curse. From the cultural aspects to the practical applications, Ben’s expertise in curses takes the listener through a journey into the weird and scary world of superstition.

You can hear the show HERE. 

Jul 182018
 

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 39: A Diet High in Skepticism 

First we hear from photographic mystery investigator Kenny Biddle, who reveals how he solved the souvenir photo mystery Ben shared back in episode 37. Then, for the second part of our New Year’s resolution series, we dive into diet myths. Ben brings some surprising statistics that go against common assumptions about how diet-obsessed Americans are. Rather than being hyper-aware of every pound, it turns out we often don’t notice weight gain (on ourselves or our children), as our notion of ideal weight shifts over time. Those of us who doknow we need to drop weight rarely put much effort into it. We touch on the “fat taboo” and how doctors are sometimes reluctant to encourage obese patients to lose weight. Celestia reflects on how fat people, like cancer patients, are hit with a ton of “miracle” fat cures from well-meaning friends and acquaintances; and she examines scapegoating diet Coke and whether that lovely brown elixir really makes people gain weight. Pascual shares some dieting experiences of his own, including ketogenic diets and swapping out soda. Filled with anecdote and self-reporting, weight loss studies are uniquely difficult to parse—which is why so many headlines give contradictory information on what works best.

 

You can hear the show HERE. 

Jul 152018
 

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 38: Bro-Science with the Credible Hulk (released December 28, 2017)

TShe Credible Hulk (a.k.a. Matt) joins a very giddy Ben and Pascual to SMASH . . . er, I mean discuss different types of exercise woo. To start off, Ben recounts his investigation years ago of a ROM machine, billed as a miracle machine designed by a “modern day DaVinci” that condenses a complete workout into exactly4 minutes (for a mere $14,615). For a first category, Matt touches on the very fringe gym woo (cupping, etc.) and tells us it’s not that prevalent among serious bodybuilders, who have a vested interest in objective results. The next common pitfall the Hulk warns us about is the lure of anecdotal evidence (i.e., what the most muscular guys say works for them). A third category of gym woo comes from misunderstanding or overextrapolating from small amounts of existing data. An example of this would be the anabolic window, and Matt takes us through a biochemical tour of that concept. The fourth category Matt covers is supplement woo, which is a big topic: from marketing smoke and mirrors to digesting versus injecting, supplements can be a very confusing and expensive placebo or simply an alternate food source. Then the guys ask some questions about salty Gatorade gum, “roid rage,” shrinking testicles, juicing cadavers, blood doping, and ghosts messing up people’s drug tests.

 

You can listen to the show HERE. 

May 052018
 

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! 

May 032018
 

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! 

May 012018
 

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! 

 

Apr 052018
 

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! 

Mar 302018
 

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! 

Mar 282018
 

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! 

Mar 252018
 

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! 

Mar 232018
 

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! 

Mar 202018
 

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! 

Mar 102018
 

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!

You can listen to 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! 

Nov 122017
 

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! 

Nov 052017
 

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! 

May 172017
 

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! 

Apr 202017
 

My work has been included in the new edition of a university textbook on Abnormal Psychology. (No, I’m not a case study.) Cool!

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

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.