“In his 2016 book Bad Clowns, Benjamin Radford writes: “It’s misleading to ask when clowns turned bad, for they were never really good.” Radford asserts that clowns and jesters have been ambiguous characters for hundreds of years. But he adds that the clowns of our nightmares have “flourished and found fame” in the past few decades. Clowns, as with everything else in modern life, have become polarised, leaving audiences unsure how to react to a performer in white face paint. As Radford writes: “You can no more separate a good clown from a bad clown than a clown from his shadow.” So where does this leave our well-intended red-nosed comedians?”
A June 6, 2018, article from ChurchandState.org titled “Propaganda Works – 58 Percent of Republicans Believe Education Is Bad” was shared on social media by liberals and Democrats, gleeful that their assumptions about conservative anti-intellectualism had been borne out in objective, quantifiable data from a respected polling organization.
The widely-shared article states that “Fox News, like Republicans and Trump, could never succeed as an ultra-conservative propaganda outlet without an ignorant population. The only way to continue having success at propagandizing is convincing Americans that being educated and informed is detrimental to the nation and its citizens; something Fox and Republicans have been very successful at over the past two years. The idea that education is bad for the country is contrary to the belief of the Declaration of Independence’s author, Founding Father and third American President Thomas Jefferson…. Obviously, the current administration and the Republican Party it represents wholly disagrees with the concept of a well-educated citizenry, or that it is beneficial to America if the populace is educated and informed. Likely because the less educated the people are, the more electoral support Republicans enjoy and the more success Trump has as the ultimate purveyor of ‘fake news.’”
There are a few things to unpack here. The first is that, like UFO coverups, this blanket anti-education effort allegedly spans many administrations and generations. Democrat and Republican alike are allegedly participants in this institutional conspiracy. The effects of Republican education cuts would not be seen in general education levels for years—if at all—and thus any “benefit” to keeping the public ignorant would of course boost the goals of future Democratic presidents and administrations as well. If true, it’s heartening to see this common ground and shared agenda between otherwise deeply polarized political parties.
Americans are in fact better educated than at any other time in history. In July 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that 90% of Americans twenty-five and older completed at least high school—an all-time high and a remarkable increase from 24% in 1940. Education has risen dramatically in the population as a whole, across genders, races, and economic statuses. In 1940, 3.8% of women and 5.5% of men had completed four years or more of college; by 2018 it was 35.3% for women and 34.6% for men. The United States spends $706 billion on education, according to the U.S. Department of Education (2019), which comes to about $13,850 per public school student. Not only does the government provide free, mandatory grade school education, but it also offers low-interest student loans for those who wish to pursue higher education. All this is puzzling behavior for a government that wants to keep its citizens ignorant, but perhaps someone didn’t get the memo. I discussed—and debunked—this idea in my recent column in Skeptical Inquirer magazine (see “Is America a Sheeple Factory?” in the January/February 2020 issue).
The article states, “Seriously, it is beyond the pale that anyone in this country thinks education is bad for America, but nearly 60 percent of Republicans is a mind boggling number. It is not entirely unexpected, but it is stunning that they have no issue telling a pollster that they believe education is a negative for the country.”
It seems damning indeed… but did 60% of Republicans really tell pollsters that? As always, it’s best to consult original sources, and in this case we can easily look at the Pew poll to find out. The question the 2017 Pew poll asked was not “Do you believe education is bad?,” but instead “Do you believe that _____ (colleges and universities / churches / labor unions / banks / news media) have a positive or negative effect on the country?”
These are, obviously, very different measures; you can’t generalize “colleges and universities” to “education” and “having a negative effect on the country” to “bad.” If you’re going to report on how people respond to certain questions in a poll or survey, you can’t retroactively change the question—even slightly—and keep the same results. That is, in a word, misleading and dishonest. Curiously, the fact that one in five Democrats (and left-leaning independents) believed that higher education has a negative effect on the country was completely ignored. That’s a third the number of Republicans who responded that way, but still a surprisingly high rate for self-identified social progressives (depending, of course, on how they interpreted the question).
I have often written about the perils of bad journalism in reporting poll and survey results. Having researched and written about misleading polls and news articles on many topics, including hatred of transgendered people (see, for example, my article “Do 60% Of People Misgender Trans People To Insult Them?”); Holocaust denial (see, for example, my article “Holocaust Denial Headlines: Hatred, Ignorance, Or Innumeracy?”); I also recently debunked an article by Global News reporter Josh K. Elliott who wrote an article falsely claiming that “Nearly 50% of Canadians Think Racist Thoughts Are Normal.”
A closer look at this poll finds that the most likely reason for this response is not that Republicans think education is inherently bad (as the headline suggests) but instead that colleges and universities (which is what the question asked about) are bastions of liberal politics. (The original piece eventually and briefly acknowledges that—contrary to its clickbait headline—Republicans don’t actually think education is inherently bad.)
One recent example is Tennessee senator Kerry Roberts, who on a conservative radio talk show stated that higher education should be eliminated because it would cut off the “breeding ground” of ideas, a proposal that he said would “save America.” When asked about his comments Roberts later stated that “his listeners understood it was hyperbole” and that he was “was clearly joking” in his comments that eliminating higher education would save the country from ruin. Sen. Roberts has neither proposed nor supported any legislation that would in fact eliminate higher education. He said, however, that he absolutely stood by his criticism of American liberal arts education “one hundred percent.” So it’s pretty clear both that: a) he was indeed joking about wanting to abolish higher education in America (and that his words were mischaracterized for political gain, a routine occurrence); and b) that nevertheless he does believe that colleges and universities spawn liberal beliefs anathema to his own.
There is a very real and demonstrable anti-education and anti-science streak among many conservatives, on topics ranging from creationism to medical research (see for example, Chris Mooney’s book The Republican War on Science). But this headline is not clear evidence of that.
While it may be fun for liberals and progressives to paint conservatives as inherently opposed to education, doing so creates an intellectually dishonest straw man fallacy. It is also ultimately counterproductive, obscuring the real forces behind those beliefs. If you approach the subject wrongly believing that many Republicans fundamentally disapprove of the idea of education, then you will badly misunderstand the problem. You can’t hope to meaningfully address a problem if you’re operating on flawed assumptions.
The marketplace of ideas is served when data and polls are presented honestly, and opposing views are portrayed fairly. Skepticism and media literacy are more important than ever, so check your sources—especially when you agree with the message—to avoid sharing misinformation.
A version of this article first appeared on my Center for Inquiry blog; you can see it HERE.
The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out, it’s “The Head Show!” It’s all about heads–too many and too few. Folklore about multi-headed or headless monsters, multi-headed people throughout history, beheadings, experiments on heads, and shrunken heads. Oh, and the frozen head of Walt Disney, of course. Heads up!
If you missed the 2019 documentary I’m in, “Wrinkles the Clown,” it’s now available on DVD and streaming. It’s a fascinating look at a real-life evil clown hired by parents to scare kids–or maybe something else entirely…
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!
I have a new book out! Or at least some contributions in a new book: Imagining the End: The Apocalypse in American Pop Culture. I wrote several sections including on the Antichrist, the Mark of the Beast, the Rapture, Latter-Day Saints Prophecy, and more.
In a previous blog I discussed my research into an ugly episode of racial hatred that tainted the 2016 holiday season. The Mall of America hired its first African-American Santa Claus, an Army veteran named Larry Jefferson. A local newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, carried a story about it on Dec. 1. Later that night an editorial page editor for the Tribune, Scott Gillespie, tweeted: “Looks like we had to turn comments off on story about Mall of America’s first black Santa. Merry Christmas everyone!” Overnight and the next morning his tweet went viral and served as the basis for countless news stories with headlines such as “Paper Forced to Close Comments On Mall Of America’s First Black Santa Thanks to Racism” (Jezebel) and “Racists Freak Out Over Black Santa At Mall Of America” (Huffington Post).
Yet every major news outlet missed the real story. They failed to check facts. My research (including an interview with Gillespie) eventually revealed that the racial incident never actually occurred, and that–despite public opinion and nearly two million news articles to the contrary–the Star Tribune did not receive a single hate-filled message in the comments section of its story on Jefferson. What happened was the product of a series of misunderstandings and a lack of fact-checking, fueled in part by confirmation bias and amplified by the digital age (for a detailed look at the case see my CFI blog “The True, Heartwarming Story of the Mall of America’s Black Santa.”)
I’ve been writing about journalism errors and media literacy for two decades (including in my book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us), and usually there’s relatively little pushback (except, perhaps, from journalists reluctant to acknowledge errors). However a curious part of this story was the criticism I received on social media for even researching it. Perhaps the best example was when I responded to a post about the initial story on a fellow skeptic’s Facebook page. She and all of her friends on the thread took the erroneous news story at face value (which didn’t surprise me, as virtually everyone did) but what did surprise me was the suggestion that trying to uncover the truth was unseemly or even “a distraction tactic.”
One person wrote, “I actually can’t believe that a self proclaimed skeptic is even having this argument in a country that just elected Donald Trump. It’s not skepticism when it disregards the proven fact that a great deal of the country, enough to elect a president, are straight up racist.” Of course I never questioned whether many or most Americans were racist. My question was very specific, clear, and about the factual basis for this one specific incident. Neither Trump’s election nor the existence of racism in America are relevant to whether or not the Tribune had to shut down its comments section in response to a deluge of hatred against a black Santa.
The ‘Distraction’ Tactic
One person wrote that me asking how many people objected to the black Santa was “a distraction tactic–now we can talk about how most people are not racist and change the subject from racism.” I was stunned. I had no idea that asking if anyone knew how many people complained would or could be construed as somehow trying to distract people (from what to what?). I replied, “Trying to quantify and understand an issue is not a ‘distraction tactic.’ I have no interest in distracting anyone from anything.’” No one–and certainly not me–was suggesting that a certain number of racists upset over a black Santa was okay or acceptable. I never suggested or implied that if it was “only” ten or twenty or a hundred, that everyone should be fine with it.
But knowing the scope of the issue does help us understand the problem: Is it really irrelevant whether there were zero, ten, or ten thousand racist commenters? If Trump can be widely (and rightly) criticized for exaggerating the crowd at his inauguration speech as “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration–period” when in fact it was several orders of magnitude smaller, why is asking how many people complained about a mall Santa so beyond the pale?
Usually when I encounter claims of investigating being a distraction in my research it was itself a distraction tactic, an attempt to head off inquiry that might debunk a claim or show that some assumption or conclusion was made in error–not unlike the Wizard of Oz pleading for Dorothy and her gang not to look behind the curtain. (“Why are you asking questions about where I suddenly got this important UFO-related document?” or “Asking for evidence of my faith healer’s miracle healings is just a distraction from his holy mission” doesn’t deter any journalist or skeptic worth his or her salt.) If a claim is valid and factual, there’s no reason why anyone would object to confirming that; as Thomas Paine noted, “It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry.”
I tried to remember where else I’d heard the phrase used, when someone who was asked about something called the questions a “distraction.” Finally I realized where that tactic had become common: In the Trump administration. When Donald Trump was asked about a leaked Access Hollywood recording of him bragging about groping women sexually, he dismissed the questions–and indeed the entire issue–as “nothing more than a distraction from the important issues we’re facing today.”
Similarly, when Vice-President Pence was asked in January 2017 about whether the Trump campaign had any contacts with Russia during the campaign, he replied, “This is all a distraction, and it’s all part of a narrative to delegitimize the election.” Others in the Trump administration (including White House spokespeople) have repeatedly waved off journalists’ questions as distractions as well.
This is not particularly surprising, but it was odd to see some of my most virulent anti-Trump friends (and Facebook Friends) using and embracing exactly the same tactics Trump does to discourage questions.
There is one important difference: In my judgment Trump and his surrogates use the tactic cynically (knowing full well that the issues and questions being asked are legitimate), while those who criticized me were using the tactic sincerely; being charitable, I have no reason to think that they realized that the black Santa story and reportage had been widely (if not universally) misunderstood. But the intention and effect were the same: An attempt to discourage someone from looking beyond the surface to see what’s really going on, and attempt to separate truth from fact.
Importance of Due Diligence
A recent news story highlights the value and importance of bringing at least some skepticism to claims: Recently a woman approached reporters at The Washington Post with a potentially explosive story: that embattled Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore had impregnated her as a teenager and forced her to have an abortion. This would of course be a potentially devastating revelation for the conservative Moore, already under fire for dating (and allegedly sexually assaulting) teenagers.
According to the Post, “In a series of interviews over two weeks, the woman [Jaime T. Phillips] shared a dramatic story about an alleged sexual relationship with Moore in 1992 that led to an abortion when she was 15. During the interviews, she repeatedly pressed Post reporters to give their opinions on the effects that her claims could have on Moore’s candidacy if she went public. The Post did not publish an article based on her unsubstantiated account. When Post reporters confronted her with inconsistencies in her story and an Internet posting that raised doubts about her motivations, she insisted that she was not working with any organization that targets journalists. Monday morning, Post reporters saw her walking into the New York offices of Project Veritas, an organization that targets the mainstream news media and left-leaning groups. The organization sets up undercover ‘stings’ that involve using false cover stories and covert video recordings meant to expose what the group says is media bias.”
The Post reporter, Beth Reinhard, “explained to Phillips that her claims would have to be fact-checked. Additionally, Reinhard asked her for documents that would corroborate or support her story.” Reinhard and the Washington Post did not ask for evidence to establish the truth of Phillips’s account because they doubted that sexual assaults occur, or that Phillips may indeed have been sexually assaulted by Moore–in fact quite the opposite, since the Post was the first to break the story and publish accusations by Moore’s accusers–but instead because they were doing their due diligence as journalists. Investigative journalists and skeptics don’t question claims and ask for evidence because they necessarily doubt what they’re being told; they do it because they want to be sure they understand the facts.
Had The Washington Post not questioned the story–or been deterred by accusations that trying to establish the truth of Phillips’s claims was some sort of “distraction” tactic–the paper’s credibility would have been damaged when Phillips’s false accusation would have quickly been revealed, and the Post’s failure to do basic research used to cast doubt on the previous women’s accusations against Moore. Martin Baron, the Post‘s executive editor, said that the false accusations were “the essence of a scheme to deceive and embarrass us. The intent by Project Veritas clearly was to publicize the conversation if we fell for the trap. Because of our customary journalistic rigor, we weren’t fooled.”
There are several critical thinking and media literacy failures here. Perhaps the most basic is where the burden of proof lies: with the person making the claim. In fact I wasn’t making a claim at all; I was merely asking for evidence of a widely-reported claim. I honestly had no idea how many or how few Tribune readers had complained about Jefferson, and I wouldn’t have even thought to question it if Gillespie hadn’t issued a tweet that contradicted the thesis of the then-viral news story.
The black Santa outrage story is full of assumptions, mostly about the bad intentions of other people. To the best of my knowledge I’m the only person who dug deeper into the story to uncover what really happened–and for that I was told that I was causing a “distraction” and even hints that I had some unspecified unseemly motive.
It’s also important to understand why a person’s questions are being challenged in the first place. It’s often due to tribalism and a lack of charity. CSCIOP cofounder Ray Hyman, in his influential short piece titled “Proper Criticism discusses eight principles including the principle of charity. “The principle of charity implies that, whenever there is doubt or ambiguity about a paranormal claim, we should try to resolve the ambiguity in favor of the claimant until we acquire strong reasons for not doing so. In this respect, we should carefully distinguish between being wrong and being dishonest. We often can challenge the accuracy or validity of a given paranormal claim. But rarely are we in a position to know if the claimant is deliberately lying or is self-deceived. Furthermore, we often have a choice in how to interpret or represent an opponent’s arguments. The principle tell us to convey the opponent’s position in a fair, objective, and non-emotional manner.”
To scientists, journalists, and skeptics, asking for evidence is an integral part of the process of parsing fact from fiction, true claims from false ones. If you want me to believe a claim–any claim, from advertising claims to psychic powers, conspiracy theories to the validity of repressed memories–I’m going to ask for evidence. It doesn’t mean I think (or assume) you’re wrong or lying, it just means I want a reason to believe what you tell me. This is especially true for memes and factoids shared on social media and designed to elicit outrage or scorn.
But to most people who don’t have a background in critical thinking, journalism, skepticism, or media literacy, asking for evidence is akin to a challenge to their honesty. Theirs is a world in which personal experience and anecdote are self-evidently more reliable than facts and evidence. And it’s also a world in which much of the time when claims are questioned, it’s in the context of confrontation. To a person invested in the truth of a given narrative, any information that seems to confirm that idea is much more easily seen and remembered than information contradicting the idea; that’s the principle of confirmation bias. Similarly, when a person shares information on social media it’s often because they endorse the larger message or narrative, and they get upset if that narrative is questioned or challenged. From a psychological point of view, this heuristic is often accurate: Much or most of the time when a person’s statement or claim is challenged (in informal settings or social media for example), the person asking the question does indeed have a vested interest.
The problem is when the person does encounter someone who is sincerely trying to understand an issue or get to the bottom of a question, their knee-jerk reaction is often to assume the worst about them. They are blinded by their own biases and they project those biases on others. This is especially true when the subject is controversial, such as with race, gender, or politics. To them, the only reason a person would question a claim is if they are trying to discredit that claim, or a larger narrative it’s being offered in support of.
Of course that’s not true; people should question all claims, and especially claims that conform to their pre-existing beliefs and assumptions; those are precisely the ones most likely to slip under the critical thinking radar and become incorporated into your beliefs and opinions. I question claims from across the spectrum, including those from sources I agree with. To my mind the other approach has it backwards: How do you know whether to believe a claim if you don’t question it?
My efforts to research and understand this story were borne not of any doubt that racism exists, nor that Jefferson was subjected to it, but instead of a background in media literacy and a desire to reconcile two contradictory accounts about what happened. Outrage-provoking stories on social media–especially viral ones based on a single, unconfirmed informal tweet– should concern all of us in this age of misinformation and “fake news.”
The real tragedy in this case is what was done to Larry Jefferson, whose role as the Mall of America’s first black Santa has been tainted by this social media-created controversy. Instead of being remembered for bringing hope, love, and peace to girls and boys, he will forever be known for enduring a (fictional) deluge of bilious racist hatred.
The fact that Jefferson was bombarded by love and support from the general public (and most whites) should offer hope and comfort this holiday season. A few anonymous cranks, trolls, and racists complained on social media posts from the safety of their keyboards, but there was very little backlash–and certainly nothing resembling what the sensational headlines originally suggested.
The true story of Jefferson’s stint as Santa is diametrically the opposite of what most people believe: He was greeted warmly and embraced by people of all colors and faiths as the Mall of America’s first black Santa. I understand that “Black Santa Warmly Welcomed by Virtually Everyone” isn’t a headline that any news organization is going to see as newsworthy or eagerly promote, nor would it go viral. But it’s the truth–and the truth matters.
Amid the encroaching commercialization of Christmas, Black Friday sales, and annual social media grumblings about the manufactured controversy over whether “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” is appropriate, an ugly episode of racial hatred tainted the beginning of the 2016 holiday season.
It began when the Mall of America hired a jolly bearded man named Larry Jefferson as one of its Santas. Jefferson, a retired Army veteran, is black–a fact that most kids and their parents neither noticed nor cared about. The crucial issue for kids was whether a Playstation might be on its way or some Plants vs. Zombies merchandise was in the cards given the particular child’s status on Santa’s naughty-or-nice list. The important thing for parents was whether their kids were delighted by the Santa, and all evidence suggests that the answer was an enthusiastic Yes. “What [the children] see most of the time is this red suit and candy,” Jefferson said in an interview. “[Santa represents] a good spirit. I’m just a messenger to bring hope, love, and peace to girls and boys.”
The fact that Santa could be African-American seemed self-evident (and either an encouraging sign or a non-issue) for all who encountered him. Few if any people at the Mall of America made any negative or racist comments. It was, after all, a self-selected group; any parents who might harbor reservations about Jefferson simply wouldn’t wait in line with their kids to see him and instead go somewhere else or wait for another Santa. Like anything that involves personal choice, people who don’t like something (a news outlet, brand of coffee, or anything else) will simply go somewhere else–not erupt in protest that it’s available to those who want it.
However a black Santa was a first for that particular mall, and understandably made the news. On December 1 the local newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, carried a story by Liz Sawyer titled “Mall of America Welcomes Its First Black Santa.”
Scott Gillespie, the editorial page editor for the Tribune, tweeted later that night (at 9:47 PM): “Looks like we had to turn comments off on story about Mall of America’s first black Santa. Merry Christmas everyone!” The tweet’s meaning seemed both clear and disappointing: On a story that the Star Tribune posted about an African-American Santa, the racial hostility got so pervasive in the comments section that they had to put an end to it, out of respect for Jefferson and/or Star Tribune readers. He ended with a sad and sarcastic, “Merry Christmas” and sent the tweet into cyberspace.
Overnight and the next morning his tweet went viral and served as the basis for countless news stories with titles such as “Paper Forced to Close Comments On Mall Of America’s First Black Santa Thanks to Racism” (Jezebel); “Santa is WHITE. BOYCOTT Mall of America’: Online Racists Are Having a Meltdown over Mall’s Black Santa” (RawStory); “Racists Freak Out Over Black Santa At Mall Of America” (Huffington Post); “Mall of America Hires Its First Black Santa, Racists of the Internet Lose It” (Mic.com), and so on. If you spend any time on social media you get the idea. It was just another confirmation of America’s abysmal race relations.
There’s only one problem: It didn’t happen.
At 1:25 PM the following day Gillespie, after seeing the stories about the scope and nature of the racist backlash the Tribune faced, reversed himself in a follow-up tweet. Instead of “we had to turn off comments,” Gillespie stated that the commenting was never opened for that article in the first place: “Comments were not allowed based on past practice w/stories w/racial elements. Great comments on FB & Instagram, though.”
This raised some questions for me: If the comments had never been opened on the story, then how could there have been a flood of racist comments? Where did that information come from? How many racist comments did the paper actually get? Fewer than a dozen? Hundreds? Thousands? Something didn’t add up about the story, and as a media literacy educator and journalist I felt it was important to understand the genesis of this story.
It can serve as an object lesson and help the public understand the role of confirmation bias, unwarranted assumptions, and failure to apply skepticism. In this era of attacks on “fake news” it’s important to distinguish intentional misinformation from what might be simply a series of mistakes and assumptions.
While I have no doubt that the Tribune story on Jefferson would likely have been the target of some racist comments at some point, the fact remains that the main point of Gillespie’s tweet was false: the Tribune had not in fact been forced to shut down the comments on its piece about the Mall of America’s black Santa because of a deluge of racist comments. That false information was the centerpiece of the subsequent stories about the incident.
The idea that some might be upset about the topic is plausible; after all, the question of a black Santa had come up a few times in the news and social media (perhaps most notably Fox News’s Megyn Kelly’s infamous incredulity at the notion three years earlier–which she later described as an offhand jest). Racist, sexist, and otherwise obnoxious comments are common in the comments section of many articles online on any number of subjects, and are not generally newsworthy. There were of course some racists and trolls commenting on the secondary stories about the Star Tribune‘s shutting down its comment section due to racist outrage (RawStory collected about a dozen drawn from social media), but fact remains that the incident at the center of the controversy that spawned outrage across social media simply did not happen.
A few journalists added clarifications and corrections to the story after reading Gillespie’s second tweet or being contacted by him. The Huffington Post, for example, added at the bottom of its story: “CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to reflect that the Minneapolis Star Tribune‘s comment section was turned off when the story was published, not in response to negative comments.” But most journalists didn’t, and as of this writing nearly two million news articles still give a misleading take on the incident.
The secondary news reports could not, of course, quote from the original non-existent rage-filled comments section in the Star Tribune, so they began quoting from their own comments sections and those of other news media. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy, wherein the worst comments from hundreds of blogs and websites were then selected and quoted, generating another round of comments. Many people saw racist comments about the story and assumed that they had been taken from the Star Tribune page at the center of the story, and couldn’t be sure if they were responding to the original outrage or the secondary outrage generated by the first outrage. As with those drawn to see and celebrate Jefferson as the mall’s first black Santa, this was also a self-selected group of people–namely those who were attracted to a racially charged headline and had some emotional stake in the controversy, enough to read about it and comment on it.
Unpacking the Reporting
I contacted Gillespie and he kindly clarified what happened and how his tweet inadvertently caused some of the world’s most prominent news organizations to report on an ugly racial incident that never occurred.
Gillespie–whose beat is the opinion and editorial page–was at home on the evening of December 1 and decided to peruse his newspaper’s website. He saw the story about Larry Jefferson and clicked on it to see if the black Santa story was getting any comments. He noticed that there were no comments at all and assumed that the Star Tribune‘s web moderators had shut them off due to inflammatory posts, as had happened occasionally on previous stories.
Understandably irritated and dismayed, he tweeted about it and went to bed, thinking no more of it. The next day he went into work and a colleague noticed that his tweet had been widely shared (his most shared post on social media ever) and asked him about it. Gillespie then spoke with the newspaper’s web moderators, who informed him that the comments had never been turned on for that particular post–a practice at the newspaper for articles on potentially sensitive subjects such as race and politics, but also applied to many other topics that a moderator for whatever reason thinks might generate comments that may be counterproductive.
“I didn’t know why the comments were off,” he told me. “In this case I assumed we followed past practices” about removing inflammatory comments. It was a not-unreasonable assumption that in this case just happened to be wrong. Gillespie noted during our conversation that a then-breaking Star Tribune story about the death of a 2-year-old girl at a St. Paul foster home also had its commenting section disabled–presumably not in anticipation of a deluge of racist or hateful comments.
“People thought–and I can see why, since I have the title of editorial page editor–that I must know what I’m talking about [in terms of web moderation],” Gillespie said. He was commenting on a topic about his newspaper but outside his purview, and to many his tweet was interpreted as an official statement and explanation of why comments did not appear on the black Santa story.
When Gillespie realized that many (at that time dozens and, ultimately, millions) of news stories were (wrongly) reporting that the Star Tribune‘s comments section had been shut down in response to racist comments based solely on his (admittedly premature and poorly phrased) Dec. 1 tweet, he tried to get in touch with some of the journalists to correct the record (hence the Huffington Post clarification), but by that time the story had gone viral and the ship of fools had sailed. The best he could do was issue a second tweet trying to clarify the situation, which he did.
“I can see why people would jump to the conclusion they did,” he told me. Gillespie is apologetic and accepts responsibility for his role in creating the black Santa outrage story, and it seems clear that his tweet was not intended as an attempt at race-baiting for clicks.
In the spirit of Christmas maybe one lesson to take from this case is charity. Instead of assuming the worst about someone or their intentions, give them the benefit of the doubt. Assuming the worst about other people runs all through this story. Gillespie assumed that racists deluged his newspaper with racist hate, as did the public. The web moderator(s) at the Star Tribune who chose not to open the comments on the Santa story may (or may not) have assumed that they were pre-empting a deluge of racism (which may or may not have in fact followed). I myself was assumed to have unsavory and ulterior motives for even asking journalistic questions about this incident (a topic I’ll cover next week).
In the end there are no villains here (except for the relative handful of racists and trolls who predictably commented on the secondary stories). What happened was the product of a series of understandable misunderstandings and mistakes, fueled in part by confirmation bias and amplified by the digital age.
The Good News
Gillespie and I agreed that this is, when fact and fiction are separated, a good news story. As noted, Gillespie initially assumed that the newspaper’s moderators had been inundated with hostile and racist comments, and finally turned the comments off after having to wade through the flood of hateful garbage comments to find and approve the positive ones. He need not have feared, because exactly the opposite occurred: Gillespie said that the Star Tribune was instead flooded with positive comments applauding Jefferson as the Mall of America’s first black Santa (he referenced this in his Dec. 2 tweet). The tiny minority of nasty comments were drowned out by holiday cheer and goodwill toward men–of any color. He echoed Jefferson, who in a December 9 NPR interview said that the racist comments he heard were “only a small percentage” of the reaction, and he was overwhelmed by support from the community.
The fact that Jefferson was bombarded by love and support from the general public (and most whites) should offer hope and comfort. Gillespie said that he had expected people to attack and criticize the Mall of America for succumbing to political correctness, but the imagined hordes of white nationalists never appeared. A few anonymous cranks and racists complained on social media posts from the safety of their keyboards, but there was very little backlash–and certainly nothing resembling what the sensational headlines originally suggested.
The real tragedy is what was done to Larry Jefferson, whose role as the Mall of America’s first black Santa has been tainted by this social media-created controversy. Instead of being remembered for, as he said, bringing “hope, love, and peace to girls and boys,” he will forever be known for enduring a (fictional) deluge of bilious racist hatred. The true story of Jefferson’s stint as Santa is diametrically the opposite of what most people believe: He was greeted warmly and embraced by people of all colors and faiths as the Mall of America’s first black Santa.
Some may try to justify their coverage of the story by saying that even though in this particular case Jefferson was not in fact inundated with racist hate, it still symbolizes a very real problem and was therefore worthy of reporting if it raised awareness of the issue. The Trump administration adopted this tactic earlier this week 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 did not happen as portrayed and described), but 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.”
This disregard for truth has been a prominent theme in the Trump administration. Yes, some tiny minority of Muslims are terrorists; no one denies that, but that does not legitimize the sharing of bogus information as examples supposedly illustrating the problem. Similarly, yes, some tiny minority of Americans took exception to Jefferson as a black Santa, but that does not legitimize sharing false information about how a newspaper had to shut down its comments because of racist rage. There are enough real-life examples of hatred and intolerance that we need not invent new ones.
In this Grinchian and cynical ends-justifies-the-means worldview, there is no such thing as good news and the import of every event is determined by how it can be used to promote a given narrative or social agenda–truth be damned.
I understand that “Black Santa Warmly Welcomed by Virtually Everyone” isn’t a headline that any news organization is going to see as newsworthy or eagerly promote, nor would it go viral. But it’s the truth.
This piece originally appeared on my Center for Inquiry blog in 2017; you can see it HERE!
For those who missed it, on the new episode of Squaring the Strange, we discuss the darker side of ghost hunting. Not a demonic dark side, but instead real-world harms and consequences. Things like trespassing dangers, costs to historical sites and organizations, loss of life and limb, and even the mangling of reputations. Please check it out, you can listen to it HERE.
Better late than never: I was interviewed recently by Ty Bannerman on KUNM’s program “Let’s Talk New Mexico” about NM ghost stories and folklore. I discussed my KiMo theater ghost investigation, and a bit about the St. James hotel… check it out HERE!
Let’s Talk New Mexico: We’ll be discussing the paranormal side of New Mexico, from modern visitations to traditional legends, as well as taking a look at why we are so fascinated by these supernatural tales. And we want to hear from you! Have you ever experienced a ghost sighting? What happened? Or do you just love ghost stories and want to share a few of your favorite? Why do you think people find these tales so compelling?
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!
Celestia and I are especially pleased with a recent episode of Squaring the Strange, in which we spoke to Leo Igwe, the tireless skeptic, humanist, and human rights advocate in Nigeria. His work on behalf of people persecuted as witches in sub-Saharan Africa is both daunting and vitally important. Skepticism and critical thinking can sometimes mean the difference between life and death.
Human rights advocate Dr. Leo Igwe joins us to discuss the dangers posed by so-called “witch hunters” in his home nation of Nigeria and other parts of Africa today. He discusses the entrenched nature of magical beliefs in the region, as well as the complicated power structure that props up those who call out fellow citizens as witches. Religions brought from Europe now play into the mix, with Islam and Christianity working alongside traditional beliefs; witch hunters are often pastors or church leaders, solidifying their power further. Victims are often powerless–the elderly, disabled, or children–and once accused they must run for their lives, abandoned by family and often the state authorities as well. Dr. Igwe talks about the challenges of getting the message across to international agencies and the UN, whose members are sometimes hesitant to speak out against these atrocities for fear of seeming racist or Islamophobic, a trend Igwe decries as stifling critical debate and much-needed open dialogue.
The issue of racism in Canada was recently brought into sharp focus when, shortly before the Canadian election, photos and videos of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in blackface and brownface emerged. They had been taken on at least three occasions in the 1990s and early 2000s. Trudeau—widely praised for his socially progressive agendas—quickly apologized and promised to do better.
Trudeau’s repeated use of blackface (and his subsequent re-election despite public knowledge of it) angered many and left Canadians wondering just how common racism is in their country. Veteran hockey commentator Don Cherry was recently fired by Sportsnet following contentious comments about immigrants. The broadcaster issued a statement that “Following further discussions with Don Cherry after Saturday night’s broadcast, it has been decided that it is the right time for him to immediately step down. During the broadcast, he made divisive remarks that do not represent our values or what we stand for.”
Americans—and the Trump administration specifically—are often characterized as inherently racist; New York Times writer Brent Staples, for example, wrote on Twitter (on January 12, 2018) that “Racism and xenophobia are as American as apple pie.” Whether racism and xenophobia are as Canadian as poutine is of course another question. Earlier this year, on May 21, 2019, Canadian news organization Global News reported on a survey that seemed to shed light on that question. The article was titled “Nearly 50% of Canadians Think Racist Thoughts Are Normal: Ipsos poll.”
The article began, “Almost half of Canadians will admit to having racist thoughts, and more feel comfortable expressing them today than in years past, a new Ipsos poll reveals … The poll, conducted exclusively for Global News, found that 47 per cent of respondents thought racism was a serious problem in the country, down from 69 per cent in 1992. More than three-quarters of respondents said they were not racist, but many acknowledged having racist thoughts they did not share with others. (All of the Ipsos poll data is available online.) ‘We found that (almost) 50 per cent of Canadians believe it’s OK and actually normal to have racist thoughts,’ said Sean Simpson, vice-president of Ipsos Public Affairs.”
Having researched and written about misleading polls and news articles on many topics, including hatred of transgendered people (see, for example, my article “Do 60% Of People Misgender Trans People To Insult Them?”); Holocaust denial (see, for example, my article “Holocaust Denial Headlines: Hatred, Ignorance, Or Innumeracy?”); and even whether or not the public believes that Native Americans exist, something about that headline struck me as off. I didn’t necessarily doubt the statistic—racism is a serious problem in Canada, America, and elsewhere—but my journalistic skeptical sense urged a closer look. The poll was conducted between April 8 and 10, 2019, sampling 1,002 Canadian adults and had a margin of error of ±3.5 percent.
I clicked through the link to the original poll by the Ipsos organization. Their About Us page explains that “In our world of rapid change, the need for reliable information to make confident decisions has never been greater. At Ipsos we believe our clients need more than a data supplier, they need a partner who can produce accurate and relevant information and turn it into actionable truth.”
The Ipsos page referencing the poll displayed a large headline “Nearly half (47%) of Canadians think racism is a serious problem in Canada today, down 22 points since 1992 (69%).” Just below this, in much smaller size, was the line “Even so, almost half (49%) admit to having racist thoughts.”
That seemed to provide a clue, as of course 49 percent may be the “nearly half” referred to in the Global News headline, but I noticed that the wording had changed: The headline stated that about half of “Canadians think racist thoughts are normal”—not that half of Canadians say they have racist thoughts. Just because you acknowledge having a racist thought does not logically mean that you think it’s “normal” or acceptable to do so; plenty of surveys and polls ask about socially and morally unacceptable behavior, ranging from infidelity to murder (a 2018 survey in Japan found that more than one in four Japanese workers admitted that the thought of killing their boss had crossed their mind on at least one occasion).
But I know that sometimes headlines are misleading, and I assumed that the statistic was contained in the poll. Many people of course don’t read past the headline; of those who do read the full article, very few will bother to click on the link to the polling organization’s data page; even fewer will actually open the original report; of those who do, most will read only the executive summary or highlights section. Vanishingly few people—if anyone—will read the full report.
This is understandable, as audiences naturally assume that a journalist, news organization, or pollster is accurately reporting the results of a poll or survey. If a news headline says that 40 percent of hockey fans drink beer during games or 85 percent of airplane pilots have college degrees, we assume that’s what the survey or research found. As I discuss in my media literacy book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us, that’s not always the case.
Like a game of Telephone, each step away from the original findings may change (usually toward simplifying and/or sensationalizing) that information. Whether intentionally or accidentally, errors can creep in every time the data are explained, summarized, or “clarified.” Usually these changes are minor and go unnoticed, because of course a person would have to check the original report to catch any discrepancies. But now and then another journalist, pedant, or researcher will take the time to check and see that something’s amiss.
Because the poll is available online, I read through it. There were many questions about many facets of racism among the Canadian respondents, but I found no reference whatsoever to the statistic mentioned in the headline. I checked again and still found nothing.
I reached out to the author of the piece, Global News Senior National Online Journalist Josh K. Elliott, and the author of the report, Sean Simpson, the Ipsos vice-president of public affairs, asking for clarifications, including which specific question item was referred to in the article.
I wrote, in part:
I read through the original Ipsos report but was unable to find the poll results you referenced in the headline, and that Sean Simpson references in your quote. I did a document search for the specific term used, “normal,” assuming that it would appear in the survey question. I found three matches, on pages 3, 19, and 20, but in none of the cases was I able to find results suggesting that “nearly 50% of Canadians think racist thoughts are normal.”
I have been unable to find that data anywhere in the Ipsos report. The closest I could find was the statistic that half of Canadians say they sometimes have racist thoughts (Question 7). But of course just because you acknowledge having racist thoughts does not logically mean that you think it’s “normal” or acceptable to do so; plenty of surveys and polls ask about socially and morally unacceptable behavior, ranging from infidelity to murder. Question wording is of course critically important in interpreting polls and surveys, and I’m concerned that “having racist thought” was mistakenly mistranslated to “think it’s normal to have racist thought” in your piece. If that statistic appears in the Ipsos report cited, please direct me to it, either by question or page number. If that statistic does not appear in the report, please clarify where it came from. Thank you.
After repeated inquiries, I was informed that Mr. Elliott no longer worked at that desk, but I got a response from Drew Hasselback, a copy editor at GlobalNews (and, eventually, a cursory and seemingly reluctant reply from Mr. Simpson).
I was directed to four questions that they said were used as the basis for the headline. I looked again at each of them.
• The first, Question 7.6, asks “To what extent do you agree or disagree that racism is a terrible thing?” In response, nearly nine in ten (88 percent) of Canadians agree that racism is terrible. It didn’t speak to whether Canadians think racist thoughts are normal, but if anything seemed to contradict the claim.
• The second, Question 7.5, asked “To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following: I can confidently say that I am not racist.” Of those polled, over three quarters (78 percent) agree that they can confidently say they’re not racist. Again, this hardly suggests that racism is considered normal among the respondents, and it contradicts the reporting and the headline associated with it.
Frankly, I’m surprised the number is that high. Why might a minority of otherwise non-racist Canadians not be able to “confidently” say that they are not racist? In part because there is a presumption that everyone is racist, whether they realize it or not. This is a widely held view among many, especially progressives and liberals (it’s so common in fact that it serves as the basis for Question 7 in the poll). In other words, even if they sincerely and truly don’t consider themselves racist and have no racist thoughts ever, they would be reluctant to go so far as to state categorically and confidently to others that they are not at all racist. (You see the same issue with polls asking women if they would use the word beautiful to describe themselves; very few do, though they will call themselves pretty, attractive, etc. Doing so is seen as vain, just as stating “I’m confident I’m not racist” would be considered by many to be boasting or virtue signaling.)
• The third was Question 7.3, which asks to what extent people agree or disagree with the statement, “While I sometimes think racist thoughts, I wouldn’t talk about them in public.” This, once again, does not support the news headline. It is vitally important when interpreting polls and surveys to parse out the precise question asked. Note that it is a compound question framed in a very specific way (asking about whether one would express a thought in public); the question was not “Do you sometimes think racist thoughts?” But even if it were, you cannot generalize “people sometimes do X” to “it’s normal for people to do X.” Merriam-Webster, for example, defines normal as “average” or “a widespread or usual practice.” Thus, a poll or survey question trying to capture the incidence of a normal behavior or event would use the word usually instead of sometimes.
• Finally, we came Question 7.1, the only question that specifically uses the word normal and asks if Canadians agree that “It’s perfectly normal to be prejudiced against people of other races.”
As I noted, this question and its response do not accurately capture the question of whether or not “X% of Canadians think racist thoughts are normal” (as the Global News headline reads), but even if it did, we find that the headline is still wrong. From this statistic alone, the correct headline would be “22% of Canadians think racist thoughts are normal”—which is less than half the number reported in the headline. About one in five whites and one in three minorities said that it’s normal to be prejudiced against people of other races, as did one in four men and one in five women. Instead of nearly half of Canadians thinking racism is normal, nearly 70 percent of Canadians disagreed that racial prejudice is normal.
The Ipsos poll itself seems well-researched, sound, and contains important information. Unfortunately, its conclusions got mangled along the way. The question is not whether specific Canadians (such as Trudeau or Cherry) are racist but instead whether or not those views are widely held; it’s the difference between anecdote and data. Polls and surveys can provide important information about the public’s beliefs. But to be valid, they must be based on sound methodologies, and media-literate news consumers should always look for information about the sample size, representativeness of the population, whether the participants were random or self-selected, and so on. And, when possible, read the original research data. News reports, such as the one I’ve focused on here, leave the false impression that racism is more widespread and socially acceptable than it really is. Racism is a serious issue, and understanding its nature is vital to stemming it; indeed, as Iposos notes, “In our world of rapid change, the need for reliable information to make confident decisions has never been greater.”
You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
This article has been adapted from my Center for Inquiry blog, available HERE.
Last month a Maine man made national news for finding tampered Halloween candy. He posted on social media that he found a needle in candy his son had bitten into. Police investigated and found he lied, hoaxing the whole thing (probably for attention).
“The psychic, Juanita Szafranski, led a search effort focused on a five-mile area surrounding the East Rock neighborhood. Peter Recchia, 59, went missing seven weeks ago, and was last seen in the area where Szafranski led the search. Szafranski says she got a strong feeling Peter, who suffers from mental illness, may no longer be alive, and she gave police specific areas to search in the coming days.”
I hope her information is accurate (it’s obvious to search near where he was last seen), but psychic detective success rates are at chance levels. I’ll keep tabs on this case to see what comes of it. I’ve previously followed real-time searches for missing persons, such as in the Holly Bobo case; we discussed it on a recent episode of Squaring the Strange…
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.
I’m quoted in a new article by Rob Lea on Medium about why people see faces in everything from ghost photos to clouds to photos of the galaxy…
A collision of two galaxies of equal size 704-million-light-years from Earth has created what appears to be a ghostly visage staring through the cosmos. But, why do humans see images such as this in random data?
The haunting image of the collision that created the Arp-Madore system was captured on 19th June 2019 by the NASA/ESO operated Hubble Space Telescope.
Galactic collisions are quite common throughout the Universe — but the collision that formed Arp-Madore and its skull-like appearance is somewhat more unique. The collision in the question here was a head-on impact — if you’ll excuse the pun.
It was this violent collision that gave the system in question its striking face-like ring structure. The impact between the two galaxies also stretched the galaxies’ respective discs of gas, dust and stars outwards forming an area of intense star-formation that gives our phantom face its ‘nose,’ ‘jaws’ and other ‘facial features.’
Our phantom’s ‘eyes’ are also evidence of a rare occurrence. This glowing and penetrating stare is formed by the central bulges of the respective galaxies. The fact that they are of roughly the same size implies to astronomers that the two colliding galaxies were also of similar sizes.
In a recent episode of Squaring the Strange we look back at pop culture aspects of the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and 1990s, including Dungeons & Dragons, Geraldo Rivera, heavy metal, “Satanic Yoda,” and how technology influenced the panic…You can find it HERE.
I’m quoted in a news article from Alabama.com about the Scary Clown Panic of 2016, and an Alabama woman sentenced to 10 years (later reduced to probation) for dressing as a clown and threatening to attack a school… It’s a very good overview of the topic, and a good follow-up story.
Around Halloween I was interviewed by Ty Bannerman on KUNM’s program “Let’s Talk New Mexico” about NM ghost stories and folklore. I discussed my KiMo theater ghost investigation, and a bit about the St. James hotel… check it out HERE!
You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
The new genre-bending film The Lighthouse is hard to describe. I’ve seen it mentioned as everything from a horror film to a dark comedy to a psychological thriller. I can’t really tell you what it is, but I can tell you what it’s about, and why you should see it.
The basics are pretty straightforward: Set in the 1800s (and probably Nova Scotia), Willem Dafoe (who’s known as an often-outstanding actor) and Robert Pattinson (who’s not) pair off as lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake and his drifter-turned-apprentice Winslow, respectively. Winslow, due to circumstances he eventually and somewhat grudgingly reveals, has signed on for a month stint alone with Wake on a tiny isolated, storm-swept island. Dafoe’s Wake is a bearded, crusty tempest, with flashing eyes and a thick brogue. Pattinson, gaunt and haunted, resembles a young Powers Boothe under a bristly black mustache.
Dafoe’s Wake is alternately sadistic, inscrutable, arguably mad, and a sad, lost soul. He has no tolerance for the teetotaling Winslow, who seems determined to work hard and follow the rules, at least long enough to earn his pay and get off the damned sea-drenched rock. Winslow is trapped (well, they both are) at least until the next monthly supply boat comes—assuming it can make it through the storm. As the story goes on we come to know more about the men, and hints of secrets each may be hiding. The claustrophobic cinematography contributes to the sense of desperation and dread.
The choice to film in black and white can come off as showy (Sin City, for example) or understated (Pi, for example), but works well in The Lighthouse. The film is as stark as the characters, and everything is extreme. The light that the lighthouse projects of course must be powerful enough to be seen for miles and is blinding up close. The foghorn as well must be heard at great distances, but is deafening nearby. Everything on the rocky clot is dangerous, or at least unpleasant, and nothing is easy.
The Lighthouse reminded me of other films which involve a psychological struggle of wills between two characters, such as Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke (1999, about a cult deprogrammer and his ward) and William Friedkin’s Bug (2006, about a drifter and the lonely woman he meets in the California desert). Films like these require strong performances, and both Dafoe and Pattinson deliver.
The Lighthouse is laden with symbolism—in fact perhaps a little too much of it—with folklore and legend helping give the script its power. The film has touches of Lovecraft and Poe (with a seagull instead of a raven as an avian portent of doom), and many threats to sanity lurk in the shadows cast by the lighthouse. Isolation is one; liquor is another. Winslow starts to have visions horrific and alluring, and sometimes both at the same time. He glimpses what he thinks is a mermaid, and comes to suspect that a seagull has it in for him (he’s probably right).
The lighthouse itself is a character, and director Robert Eggers gives it its due. We see its inner workings—the levers and chains and pulleys and coal-fired furnaces—though not necessarily its secrets. There are lighthouse fanatics, just as there are train fanatics and covered bridge fanatics, and I can see why: they’re symbolic and archaic. The film’s thunderous soundtrack works too hard to drive home the story’s beats, and could have been profitably dropped by a dozen or so decibels. If The Lighthouse suffers a bit from a murky plot, the haunting atmosphere and acting more than make up for it.
Halloween is coming up soon, and amid the make-believe witches, ghouls, and goblins, there are supposedly real-life villains who hope to harm on children October 31. News reports and scary stories on social media leave many parents concerned about protecting children from Halloween threats.
But are they real or myth? Here are five scary myths and legends about the spookiest holiday
1) Halloween is Satanic
While many people see Halloween as scary and harmless fun some people, including many fundamentalist Christians, believe that there is sinister side to the holiday. They believe that underneath the fantasy costumes and candy-dispensing traditions there lies an unseen spiritual struggle for the souls of the innocent.
Christian evangelist Phil Phillips and Joan Hake Robie, in their book “Halloween and Satanism,” explain that the seemingly harmless costumes (such as witches, zombies and vampires) put children’s spiritual lives at risk by interesting them in supernatural occult phenomena–and, ultimately, on the road to Satanic practices. Of course it’s not just Halloween that these groups are concerned about–they have in the past protested against role-playing games, heavy-metal music, and even Harry Potter books.
The most familiar Halloween scares involve contaminated candy, and every year, police and medical centers across the country X-ray candy collected by trick-or-treaters to check for razors, needles, or contaminants that might have been placed there by strangers intending to hurt or kill children. Scary news reports and warnings on social media claimed that dangerous candy had been found, raising fears among parents and children. Many medical centers across the country,including in Harrisburg, Penn., are offering free X-raying of candy this Halloween.
This threat is essentially an urban legend. There have been only two confirmed cases of children being killed by poisoned Halloween candy, and in both cases the children were killed not in a random act by strangers but intentional murder by one of their parents. The best-known, “original” case was that of Texan Ronald Clark O’Bryan, who killed his son by lacing his Pixie Stix with cyanide in 1974. In essence he used this myth to try to cover his crime.
Yet the fear continues. There have been a few instances of candy tampering over the years-and in most cases the “victim” turned out to be the culprit, children doing it as a prank or to draw attention. Last year there were a few news reports about suspected tainted candy, and police determined that the incidents were hoaxes. In Philadelphia an 11-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy in who reported finding needles in their trick-or-treat candy admitted they made up the story for attention, and a 37-year-old father claimed to have found tainted candy in his kids’ loot; he later admitted it was a hoax and claimed that he put the needles in the candy to teach his kids a lesson about safety.
Fortunately, parents can rest easy: Despite the ubiquitous warnings on social media, there have been no confirmed reports of anyone actually being injured or harmed by contaminated Halloween candy from strangers.
3) Beware Halloween Terrorists
After the September 11, 2001, attacks, rumors circulated that mysterious Middle Eastern men were buying up huge quantities of candies just before Halloween. Many people were concerned that this might be part of a terrorist plot to attack America’s children, and the FBI looked into the case.Prompted by the public concern over potential terrorism, the FBI acknowledged that it was investigating the cash purchase of ‘large quantities’ of candy from Costco stores in New Jersey. A week before Halloween, on October 22, the FBI cleared up the rumors. It was one man, not two, who had bought $15,000 worth of candy, not $35,000. The man’s nationality was not revealed, so he may or may not have been Arab or dark-skinned or even had an ethnic name. As it turned out the man was a wholesaler who planned to resell the candy, and the purchase was a routine transaction that had nothing to do with terrorism.
4) Beware Sex Offenders on Halloween
Though the fears over poisoned candy (whether by malicious neighbors or foreign terrorists) never materialized, the reputed Halloween evil took a new form in the 1990s: sex offenders. This scare, even more than the candy panics, was fueled by alarmist news reports and police warnings. In many states, convicted sex offenders were required not to answer the door if trick-or-treaters came by, or to report to jail overnight. In many states including Texas and Arkansas offenders were required to report to courthouses on Halloween evening for a mandatory counseling session.
The theory behind such laws is that Halloween provides a special opportunity for sex offenders to make contact with children, or to use costumes to conceal their identities. This has been the assumption among many local politicians and police for years. Yet there is no reason to think that sex offenders pose any more of a threat to children on Halloween than at any other time. In fact, there has not been a single case of any child being molested by a convicted sex offender while trick-or-treating.
A 2009 study confirmed that the public has little to fear from sex offenders on Halloween. The research, published in the September 2009 issue of Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, examined 67,307 non-family sex offenses reported to law enforcement in 30 states over nine years. The researchers wanted to determine whether or not children are in fact at any greater risk for sexual assault around Halloween: “There does not appear to be a need for alarm concerning sexual abuse on these particular days. Halloween appears to be just another autumn day where rates of sex crimes against children are concerned.”
5) Beware Scary Clowns
In the wake of the scary clown panics across the country, several national stores including Target have removed scary clown masks from their shelves, and both kids and parents are asking children to both beware of people in clown costumes and to not wear scary clown masks. Several counties have banned scary clown costumes and masks this Halloween. As one writer noted, “A Kemper County, Mississippi’s Board of Supervisors voted recently to make it unlawful to wear a clown costume in public. The ban covers all ages and includes costumes, masks or makeup. The ban –which will expire the day after Halloween –comes at the request of the county sheriff… It comes after a series of reports from around the country and Alabama that spooky-looking clowns were threatening children and schools. Some of those reports were later debunked and a few led to arrests with concerns over the creepy clown phenomenon growing as Halloween approaches.”
Clown masks have also been banned from some New Jersey schools; as “USA Today” reported, “The West Milford Police Department has said there is no specific threat against the community. Still, there have been spotty and unsubstantiated reports on social media about people in scary clown masks lurking around township school yards in recent weeks.”
Fortunately so far there are no confirmed reports of children being seriously injured, abducted, or killed by anyone dressed in scary clown masks over the past few months. Most of the reports are hoaxes and copycats, usually by teenagers who have fun scaring people or seeing themselves on social media.
Halloween is scary enough on its own, between overpriced candy and sugar-sated kids. The real threats to children don’t involve tampered candy, Satanists, scary clowns, terrorists, or sex offenders; instead they include being hit by a car in the dark, or wearing a flammable costume, or injuring themselves while walking on curbs because they can’t see out of their masks. Most kids are very safe at Halloween, and the average child is far more likely to die of a heart attack or be hit by lightning than be harmed in some Halloween-related menace.
You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
In case you missed it, our recent episode of Squaring the Strange has all sorts of weirdness!
Ben recounts his latest TV appearance and chupacabra follow-up. The AlienStock / Storm Area 51 thing happened, or tried to happen. And two movies open this week that are unsettling audiences due to clown content–one of the films contains Ben! Lastly, we take a cursory look at a tabloid story that mirrors the film Orphan. Then, for the last half of the episode, Ben takes us on a deep dive into the Ica Stones, a hoax wrapped in a riddle tucked into a quaint little museum-shrine in Peru. What impressed a doctor so much that he gave up medicine to collect these peculiar little tchotchkes, believing them to be proof of aliens, or a Biblical young earth, or both?
For those who love skeptical ear candy, you can listen HERE!
I’m quoted in a new article on the true stories behind many classic horror films…
How do you make a horror tale scarier? Just say it’s “based on a true story.” That’s a technique book publishers and movie producers have been using for decades, whether or not the supposedly “true story” adds up.Some movies are inspired by what might be called “real hoaxes”—made-up stories that people have believed. Others draw inspiration from unexplained behavior or folklore. Read about how the story of a troubled teen inspired a movie about demon possession, how a series of hoaxes launched a major movie franchise and how centuries-old folklore about disease gave way to a classic Hollywood villain…
The Amityville Horror tale raised the profile of Ed and Lorriane Warren, a couple who got involved with the Amityville story and helped promote it. “They set themselves up as psychics and clairvoyants who investigate ghosts and hauntings,” says Benjamin Radford, deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. “They would hear about stories either in the news or just sort of through the grapevine, and they would sort of introduce themselves into the story.” But more on them later.
Earlier this year a West Virginia mother called 911 to report that an Arab man tried to abduct her five-year-old daughter at a mall. Police and mall security arrested the man (an engineer from Egypt who spoke little English), but surveillance footage showed no abduction attempt, nor even any interaction between the man and the girl. The mother was arrested for making a false report, and her trial date has now been set.
You can read my original article on it below and HERE.
Social and news media have unfortunately seen a rise in two distinct toxic phenomena over the past year or so.
The first is a steady stream of white women calling police on minorities minding their own business in public spaces, in dozens of cases including a Starbucks, a public park, swimming pools, streetcorners, and the common area of university housing.
The second is a series of false rumors of child abductions, both across the United States and around the world; for more on this see my piece “Social Media-Fueled Child Abduction Rumors Lead to Killings” in the January/February 2019 issue of Skeptical Inquirer.
For example in June 2018, Joshua Hatley, a Kansas man, posted a message on Facebook with information claiming a black woman attempted to abduct his child at a local Walmart. Police first heard about the incident not from the panicked mother or father but instead from concerned citizens who shared the urgent warning on Facebook over 11,000 times and wanting to know if their children were also in danger. Police investigated the attempted abduction and reviewed the store’s surveillance camera footage but were unable to find any attempted abduction at all. Detectives showed the footage to Hatley, who eventually admitted that he hadn’t personally witnessed the incident—that it was reported to him by his sister-in-law. As more and more questions arose, police became concerned about the woman photographed and publicly accused on social media of trying to abduct a child. For more on this see my blog on the topic.
Another recent incident with lessons about eyewitness testimony, social media rumor, and racial bias has surfaced. Santana Renee Adams, 24, a mother in Barboursville, West Virginia, called 911 to report that an Egyptian man tried to abduct her five-year-old daughter at a mall.
“WSAZ reported that 54-year-old Mohamed Fathy Hussein Zayan, of Alexandria, Egypt, tried to grab the young girl by her hair while at an Old Navy store inside the mall at around 6 pm on Monday. The girl ‘dropped to the floor with the male still pulling her away,’ prompting the child’s mother to pull out a handgun and warning Zayan to let her daughter go. Zayan subsequently let go of the girl and ran out of the store into the mall. The Barboursville Police, who were called to the scene following the incident, said that a short time later, deputies and mall security spotted the 54-year-old walking near the food court area in the mall. After the mother confirmed that he was the man who tried to nab her daughter, the deputies moved in and arrested him.”
Police, however, could find no witnesses to the incident, and there were inconsistencies in Adams’s statements about the incident when they interviewed her a second time. After being confronted by police with inconsistencies, Adams conceded that what she interpreted as an attempted abduction may in fact have simply been a cultural misunderstanding… He had maybe simply touched her daughter on the head—instead of grabbing it and throwing her to the floor as she’d described—in a display that, while inappropriate, was neither an assault or an attempt at an abduction.
However that, too, was a lie. Zayan’s attorney, Michelle Protzman, reviewed security footage obtained from Old Navy and found “absolutely no evidence that Zayan touched the girl.” In fact Zayan and the girl weren’t even near each other in the store—and furthermore the mother was not seen pulling out a gun, as she’d claimed. Video surveillance showed Adams and Zayan walking out of the store, calmly and seemingly unperturbed, about half a minute apart and walking in opposite directions. Soon after that, however, Adams apparently—and retroactively—decided that the foreign man had (a few minutes earlier) tried to abduct her daughter, and called police.
The accused man is an engineer employed at a local construction job and speaks little English. After Zayan’s mug shot and the accusations against him were shared widely on news and social media, the charges were eventually dropped. “Instead of caring about facts and caring about evidence and the truth, I think the court of public opinion and social media don’t care about innocent until proven guilty and everyone jumps right on as soon as somebody makes an accusation,” Protzman said.
So we have an innocent Muslim man who never even touched the girl being falsely accused of an attempted kidnapping by the girl’s mother. Why would anyone—especially a mother—make up a false accusation of attempted abduction against a total stranger?
It’s not clear; the motivation could be racism, a misunderstanding caused by drugs or mental illness, or maybe just a desire to get attention and sympathy by casting herself as a heroic mom bravely brandishing a gun in defending her child from a stranger abduction (on social media she was hailed as a hero and as an example of why guns are needed when in public).
Whatever the motivation, last week Adams was arrested for filing a false report, a misdemeanor. Most people who make false accusations are not charged; of those who are charged, most are dismissed (the Jussie Smollett case being a recent example); and of those that are not dismissed, the penalties are usually very light, such as a fine or probation.
Though false accusations (of all crimes) are rare, they are especially egregious when they are used as a weapon against minorities, and a measure of skepticism is always important when facts don’t add up.
Late last month police and parents expressed concern over the film Joker, and its possible influence on unhinged people. As ABC News reported, “The soon-to-be released psychological thriller Joker starring Oscar-nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix has prompted a ‘credible potential mass shooting’ threat on a movie theater somewhere in the United States, military officials warned in a memorandum issued this week. The alarming notice was sent out on Monday by military officials at Fort Sills Army base in Oklahoma, and was based on intelligence gathered by the FBI from the ‘disturbing and very specific’ chatter of alleged extremists on the dark web, officials said.”
It’s not just the FBI that’s concerned. As CNN reported, “A group of people whose loved ones witnessed or were killed in 2012’s Aurora theater shooting are calling on Warner Bros. to help combat gun violence as the studio prepares to release its rated-R comic book film Joker. In a letter addressed to Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff and obtained by CNN, five family members and friends of victims of the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado ask the studio to ‘use your massive platform and influence to join us in our fight to build safer communities with fewer guns … . Over the last several weeks, large American employers from Walmart to CVS have announced that they are going to lean into gun safety. We are calling on you to be a part of the growing chorus of corporate leaders who understand that they have a social responsibility to keep us all safe.’”
The studio responded, in part, that “Warner Bros. believes that one of the functions of storytelling is to provoke difficult conversations around complex issues. Make no mistake: neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind. It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero.”
The Dark Knight Shooting: A Closer Look
The Aurora, Colorado, killings are widely—but mistakenly—thought to have been inspired by the Joker character. On July 20, 2012, James Holmes opened fire at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, killing twelve people and injuring dozens more. He showed up, apparently in costume, as many others did for a midnight premiere screening of the much-anticipated Batman film The Dark Knight Rises.
The question immediately turned to motive: What would make a former university student commit such a horrific crime? The answer seemed obvious to many, and in the hours and weeks following the massacre, the news media was abuzz with speculation that the dazed-looking Holmes had been inspired to kill by the Batman film where he executed his rampage. Many in the public, including journalists, pundits, and even some police officials assumed that there was a clear connection to either the Batman film or its characters. Media critics in particular used the shooting as an opportunity to criticize violent entertainment: Did fictional shootings, killing, and mayhem involving clowns lead to real-life tragedy?
The rampant speculation focused on several key pieces of evidence. It’s easy to see why people would jump to the conclusion that the film and the massacre were related, but it’s equally clear that the film itself did not inspire Holmes. The attack had been planned for months, starting long before the film had released; the audience he was part of, and that he fired on, was seeing the first screening of the film.
Therefore, The Dark Knight Rises could not have inspired his violent shooting, because Holmes himself had not even seen it. The speculation then changed from suggesting that the film had inspired the killing to the idea that the film’s villain, Bane, had been his inspiration. Even though Holmes could not have seen the film, trailers and publicity photos had been published showing Batman’s nemesis, and he might have seen those and modeled Bane’s murderous actions and garb.
Holmes was dressed in a bulletproof vest and a riot helmet at the time of his attack, along with a gas mask; in the film, Bane also wears bulletproof armor and breathes through a mask (though not a gas mask). It could be seen as a case of a real-life fan dressing like a movie villain, or it could merely be a case of dressing appropriately for the plan of attack: if a person is planning to be in a shootout and use of a gas or smoke grenade, then a bulletproof vest and a gas mask are logical equipment for the purpose and have nothing to do with Bane. Still, the connection was far from clear, and the news media finally settled on a different, and seemingly much more likely, Batman villain: the Joker.
Enter the Joker?
The speculation that James Holmes was inspired to kill in imitation of the famous fictional murderous clown rested on two pieces of evidence: the fact that Holmes had dyed his hair red or orange; and a claim made in news reports that just before he opened fire Holmes shouted “I am the Joker!” New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly stated at a press conference that “it clearly looks like a deranged individual. He had his hair painted red, he said he was ‘The Joker,’ obviously the enemy of Batman.” Such commentary launched a media frenzy; the New York Daily News stated that “the flame-haired freak accused of staging the Dark Knight movie massacre may have drawn inspiration from a twisted and even darker cinematic take on the classic Batman story…The 24-year-old accused mass murderer dyed his hair and declared he was the Joker—Batman’s arch-enemy—when was arrested shortly after the massacre.” An ABC News story added yet another element, “While there has been no indication as to the motives of James Holmes … new evidence suggests that he was inspired by the Batman series of comic books and/or movies. Law enforcement sources confirmed to ABC News that Holmes said ‘I am the Joker’ when apprehended by authorities. His hair was painted red [and] Holmes also booby-trapped his apartment, a favorite technique of the Joker.”
DC Comics was of course aghast that their most famous fictional villain might have inspired a real-life mass murderer and immediately issued press releases expressing their condolences and outrage. The film’s opening was delayed, and Batman actor Christian Bale visited hospitalized shooting victims. It seemed to many that a real-life killer had indeed adopted an evil clown’s persona to carry out his crimes.
However as the weeks and months passed, what at first glance seemed like a clear-cut case of a mass murderer playing the Joker turned out to be far weaker than assumed. The claim that Holmes was inspired by the Joker would be much stronger if, for example, he had worn a Joker costume (which are relatively inexpensive and easily available), or if he had been in clown makeup. He did not wear the Joker’s costume or any makeup at all.
What about Holmes’s dyed hair? For many people that was a clear imitation of the Joker—but what the news media missed is that the Joker doesn’t have red hair. Neither Joker in the films (played by Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger) had red or orange hair: the Joker’s hair is—and always has been—green. If Holmes was imitating the Joker, he seems to have done a very poor job of it, neglecting to adopt the character’s makeup, hair color, costume, or any other characteristic of the iconic villain. In fact, Holmes didn’t use any part of the Joker’s image in the attack.
But what about the numerous reports stating that Holmes explicitly claimed to be the Joker? As John Miller reported on the CBS show Face the Nation, that initial claim “turned out not to be true.” In fact, Miller noted, “Every single witness that [the police] have spoken to, and that we [CBS News] have spoken to, has said that he did not say a word, he just opened fire. And in fact he was wearing a gas mask with a movie going on in the background so had he actually elected to say anything, no one would have heard him anyway.” Holmes never claimed to be the Joker or even invoked the character.
Part of the confusion may have stemmed from a news report around the same time. There actually was a gunman who claimed to have shouted, “I am the Joker! I’m gonna load my guns and blow everybody up” in late July 2012. But it was a man named Neil Prescott, who threatened to shoot his coworkers in a mass attack at Pitney Bowes plant in Washington, D.C., one week after the Aurora theater attack on July 27. Ironically, this bit of information linking a Batman villain to a threat of mass killings also turned out to be a reporting error; news reports later clarified that Prescott referred to himself as “a joker”—not The Joker: he was not dressed like the villain, nor was there any connection to Batman.
Claims about the Joker being an inspiration for Holmes’s massacre gradually faded as it became clear that the connection was little more than a media-created myth. There was no mention at all of the Joker during Holmes’s criminal trial in 2015; no Joker references surfaced despite extensive psychological examinations and investigations into the killer’s past and motives. Nor was the Joker mentioned in notebook diaries kept by Holmes as he wrote down his plans to kill as many people as he could—not in imitation of any clown but because of what he described as his “lifelong hatred of mankind.” Holmes pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and was sentenced to life in prison in August 2015.
It is of course possible that someone might dress up as a clown and attack a screening of Joker (or any other film), but it would not be a true copycat crime of any Joker attack, because there never was an attack on a theater (or anywhere else) by anyone in a Joker or clown costume to mimic. There have been a handful of theater shootings, including a July 2015 incident in which a man named John Houser attacked the audience at a Louisiana screening of Trainwreck. But without some obvious referent to one of those shootings, there would be no reason to think it was a copycat crime.
Psychology of Copycat Clowns
As I discuss in my book Bad Clowns (University of New Mexico Press, 2016), there is a long history of people dressing as clowns to scare people or make viral videos. Shortly before Halloween 2013, a man was seen and photographed prowling the streets of Northampton, U.K., at night. The clown, dubbed “The Northampton Clown,” did not harass or attack anyone but seemed content to cause creepy consternation (and sometimes pose for photos, which were shared widely on social media). Other scary clowns emerged, including the Staten Island Clown in 2014, later revealed to be a publicity stunt for a horror film. Most of these scary clown reports are hoaxes, rumors, and copycats. But why would anyone—much less dozens of people—dress up as a clown to scare people?
For most of the copycat clowns, the prank is a high-yield, low-risk stunt: If he or she is successful, their photo or video will go viral and be included in news coverage; if unsuccessful, the clown will simply be ignored or, at most, arrested for a minor crime such as loitering or menacing. Scaring people out walking at night is not a high-priority crime. Most of the cases are people who are inspired by news stories of previous scary clown pranksters or reports. Many do it for fun or attention, and anyone reporting a clown sighting (real or fake) amid the national coverage is guaranteed a place on the local news, if not national attention.
Threatening clowns are nothing new either: In September and October 2016, schools across the country were threatened by clowns. Responses to the threats—many of them originating (or shared) on social media—resulted in increased police patrols and in some cases full lockdowns. For example, police in Flomaton, Alabama, investigated what were deemed credible threats to students at the local high school that were shared via social media. A total of about 700 students at Flomaton High School and nearby Flomaton Elementary School were told to shelter in place while the schools, following protocol, were placed on lockdown for much of the day while dozens of police and other law enforcement officers searched the grounds for threats. The threats had originated from two Facebook accounts, “FLOMO KLOWN” and “Shoota Cllown”; the digital trail led FBI investigators to one adult and two teens. Twenty-two year old Makayla Smith was arrested for making a terroristic threat while posting as an evil clown and sentenced to five years of probation.
Despite the panic and concern, there were no reports of any clowns—or anyone dressed as a clown—actually shooting up schools. Many other cases turned out to be hoaxes and in some cases both adults and schoolchildren admitted to making up stories of seeing threatening clowns. An Ohio woman called police to report that she’d been attacked by a knife-wielding clown who jumped over a fence and cut her hand. Police investigated the report but found no evidence of any attack, and the woman admitted that she faked the attack as an excuse for why she was late for her job at McDonald’s.
As of today (weeks after the film opened) the feared threats never materialized, but it’s not surprising that authorities would take it seriously. Any other time reports of threatening clowns would likely have been ignored or dismissed, but these copycat clown incidents came at a time when very real terroristic threats and school shootings are in the news. Parents can take comfort that no clowns are actually trying to abduct or harm kids—not a single credible report has surfaced of any child being hurt or even touched by a threatening clown, nor have any Joker figures killed anyone. Still, police understandably err on the side of caution, deciding it’s better to be safe than sorry.
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 bookThe 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.
So this is cool: I appear in a new documentary film titled “Wrinkles the Clown,” about a creepy clown in Florida who scares kids (often at their parents’ request). It’s a fascinating, weird story, and you can hear my voice in the official trailer (link in story below). The film will be released Oct. 4 in theaters and streaming, so look for it this weekend!
Between It Chapter Two and the upcoming Joker, it is safe to say creepy clowns are having a moment again. Thanks to Deadline, we’ve learned about a new documentary about a real life terrifying clown that has been haunting the nightmares of kids for years. Wrinkles The Clown is all about a Florida clown who found a whole new career being hired by parents to scare the crap out of their misbehaving kids. Well, we hope the kids were misbehaving, or else this is just plain mean.
You can see the first trailer for Wrinkles The Clown down below:
Wrinkles first rose to internet fame several years back. It all started when a grainy low-resolution video of a terrifying clown slowly coming out from underneath a child’s bed was posted on YouTube. It quickly went viral, and suddenly the legend of Wrinkles the Clown was born. There were Wrinkles sightings across the state of Florida, freaking locals out. And kids calling what they believed to be Wrinkles’ phone number and seeing if he’d pick up became a rite of passage, much like saying “Bloody Mary” five times in front of a mirror was for previous generations. Only in this case, Wrinkles actually was a real guy.
This new documentary from filmmaker Michael Beach Nichols explores the man behind the terrifying mask, a man who inspired a wave of copycat “creepy clown sightings” all across America not long after. It will explores how quickly urban legends can take hold in the age of YouTube and social media. Even as such, things are easier to debunk as hoaxes than ever before…
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!
There are many scientific and skeptical objections to astrology, including the fact that the constellations have shifted since astrology was devised, that many real-world tests have failed to find statistically meaningful patterns in the lives of people born under certain zodiac signs, and that there are multiple—and in fact contradictory—versions of astrology that adherents fervently believe. For more information see the Skeptoid podcast, the Skeptics Dictionary, and of course many articles for Skeptical Inquirer.
But what may be even more disturbing is astrology’s close similarity to racism. The basic premise of astrology is that people who were born at certain times and places share specific, distinguishing personality characteristics. Libras like myself, for example, are said to be diplomatic, refined, idealistic, and sociable; Cancers are emotional, sensitive, and domestic; those born under the Taurus sign are stubborn, analytical, and methodical, and so on. Hundreds of millions of people read their daily horoscopes, or at least know something about their sun signs.
Astrology and racism share many of the same ideas. For one thing, in both cases a person is being judged by factors beyond their control. Just as a person has no control over their race or skin color, they also have no control over when and where they were born. Both astrology and racial stereotypes are based on a framework of belief that basically says, “Without even meeting you, I believe something about you: I can expect this particular sort of behavior or trait (stubbornness, laziness, arrogance, etc.) from members of this particular group of people (Jews, blacks, Aries, Pisces, etc.)”
When an astrologer finds out a person’s astrological sign, he or she will bring to that experience a pre-existing list of assumptions (prejudices) about that person’s behavior, personality, and character. In both cases, the prejudices will cause people to seek out and confirm their expectations. Racists will look for examples of characteristics and behaviors in the groups they dislike, and astrologers will look for the personality traits that they believe the person will exhibit. Since people have complex personalities (all of us are lazy some of the time, caring at other times, etc.), both racists and astrologers will find evidence confirming their beliefs.
As Carl Sagan wrote, “It’s like racism or sexism: you have twelve little pigeonholes, and as soon as you type someone as a member of that particular group… you know his characteristics. It saves you the effort of getting to know him individually.” Others, of course, have noted the same thing, including The Friendly Atheist blog.
Astrology has long been used to discriminate against people. According to a job listing in in Wuhan, China, a language training company there sought qualified applicants—as along as they’re not Scorpios or Virgos. The Toronto Sun reported that Xia, a spokeswoman for the company, said that in her experience Scorpios and Virgos are often “feisty and critical.” Xia said, “I hired people with those two star signs before, and they either liked quarrelling with colleagues or they could not do the job for long.” She preferred potential applicants who were Capricorns, Libras and Pisces. To some it may seem like a bad joke, but it’s not funny to qualified applicants desperate for a job who get turned away because of the company’s credence in astrology. In 2009 an Austrian insurance company advertised, “We are looking for people over 20 for part-time jobs in sales and management with the following star signs: Capricorn, Taurus, Aquarius, Aries and Leo.”
Of course, astrologers are not necessarily racists. But the belief systems underlying both viewpoints are identical: prejudging individuals based on general beliefs about a group. If we do not assume that African-Americans are lazy, Arabs are terrorists, or Asians are scholastic geniuses, why would we assume that Cancers are emotional, Aries are born leaders, or Geminis are optimistic non-conformists? People should be judged as unique, individual persons, not based on what arbitrary group they belong to. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., a person should be judged not by the color of their skin—nor the date and time of their birth—but by the content of their character.
I wrote about this topic for Discovery News in 2011, and it caused quite a stir. It generated a then-new record for the number of comments (I even received a t-shirt from my editors in honor of the occasion; see below).
Astrologers, as you can imagine, were not happy with me either. One responded:
The deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, Benjamin Radford penned an article entitled “How Astrology is like Racism.” He justifies this claim by arguing that people use astrology to classify individuals according to stereotypes based on their Star Sign (Sun Sign) and therefore “a person is being judged by factors beyond their control” … Radford’s claim rests on a belief that people are being judged. However, modern astrologers don’t consider signs, planets or even horoscopes to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Certainly some horoscopes are more challenging than others, but this can drive a person towards a successful and fulfilling life.
After a weak-sauce and largely strawmanned rebuttal (sample: “Astrologers do not make moral judgements or assumptions about people based on their birth data”—I never claimed they did), the article turned ad hominem:
“And who is Benjamin Radford? The deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer self-styled ‘science’ magazine and a so-called ‘Research Fellow’ with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (formerly CSICOP). The Skeptical Inquirer is simply not scientific and copying the term ‘research fellow’ could seem like a ploy to make this vigilante operation look more ‘sciency’ and their eyes respectable. A research fellow is an academic research position at a university and CSI is not an academic body or even a research institution. CSI abandoned all attempts at scientific research after their disastrous investigation into the work of Michel Gauquelin that ended up supporting astrology. They later wisely dropped the word ‘scientific’ from their name (previously CSICOP) to become Committee for Skeptical Investigation. So their focus is not on critical thinking and research, but on preaching and promoting their beliefs. Is it appropriate for a senior member of a predominantly male and almost exclusively white sceptical group (CSI/CSICOP) to use the “racist card” to justify his personal beliefs? This seems hypocritical when the sceptical movement has been widely criticised for being sexist and patriarchal. Distancing themselves from this type of unfounded nonsense would help to clean up their collective act and from the author a retraction and an apology to all those who have suffered and still suffer from racial abuse for trying to hijack and downgrade racism.
Yeah, I think I hit a nerve.
But all the hand waving and goalpost moving in the world will not erase the parallels between racism and astrology.
You can see the original article on the CFI website 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!
The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! First we talk with Dr. Hans House about infectious diseases (flu, ebola, measles, etc.), as well as how to deal with vaccine deniers. Then we’re joined by Kenny Biddle to talk about faked credentials, and I talk about an undercover investigation I did exposing a Canadian college professor who faked his diploma!
I’m quoted in a new article on ghost investigation and different psychological explanations for ghostly experiences.
Here’s an excerpt:
Despite decades of testing, there is no scientific proof of the existence of ghosts. Part of that is because no one can agree on what a ghost is, exactly. Are they material? Or invisible? Are they human souls? Or some kind of energy? As LiveScience’s Benjamin Radford writes, “With so many basic contradictory theories — and so little science brought to bear on the topic — it’s not surprising that despite the efforts of thousands of ghost hunters on television and elsewhere for decades, not a single piece of hard evidence of ghosts has been found.”
For those who didn’t see it, a recent episode of Squaring the Strange featured special guest Matt Crowley and I talk about our experience at Bigfoot conferences, the rise and fall of “Bigfoot’s Butt Print” evidence, and why Matt decided that the credibility of Bigfoot research is beyond salvage.
Squaring the Strange time! This started off as a little bonus mini-episode where we have a little roundtable about some frustrating patterns of thought we have spotted on social media and other types of public discourse; some have actual fallacy names, some don’t necessarily have a label. Lo and behold, once we got chatting it turned into a regular length episode.
Just a bit less formal. Hope you enjoy; you can listen HERE!
One common claim about Donald Trump is that he often says and does things not only for effect, but with the specific goal of distracting the public and news media from something else he wants to keep hidden. The claims have circulated for years, especially on social media; for example one Facebook post recently stated that “Trump’s quixotic attacks on immigrant children, Denmark, and American Jews are horrible, but even though we can’t ignore them, they are obviously meant to distract.”
While possible—anything is possible—it wasn’t clear what Trump’s statements and actions are “obviously” meant to distract the public or the news media from. While not a formal conspiracy theory, the claim demonstrates classic conspiracy thinking: that there must be some hidden agenda, some “real” reason why something happens, in this case why Trump would crack down on immigrants, pick a fight with Denmark, and opine that American Jews who didn’t support him were “disloyal.” (By implication this comment might suggest that Trump’s statements, positions, and actions were insincere and didn’t reflect his true values but were merely a shiny decoy.)
The claim essentially posits or assumes a correlation between Trump’s often wild, news-making statements and actions, and the existence of some potentially unsavory act or news story that does (or might potentially) involve Trump in some way. The claim is typically stated as a self-evident matter of fact, that “obviously” some devious (if transparent) distraction tactic is afoot. The idea merits a critical media literacy analysis, so let’s take a closer look.
Trump’s statements are notable and reported on for many reasons, chief among them that 1) they reflect formal, official positions by the United States government; or 2) they’re factually and demonstrably false, misleading, or exaggerated; or 3) they’re bizarre, non-sequitur, and/or petty personal attacks. The news media rarely reported on the last two categories of statements by previous presidents for the simple reason that those presidents rarely made them. Therefore the sheer number of newsworthy statements by Trump are far higher than in the past—coming in some cases on a daily basis—and thus represent a huge pool of statements that could potentially be seen as having been issued as part of some distraction strategy.
Against this backdrop we have the second part of the equation, events and issues that are potentially (personally or politically) embarrassing or damaging to Trump. Once again we find a deep well of material. The Trump presidency—and arguably most of Trump’s adult life—has been characterized by a constant stream of realized and potential scandals of every conceivable type, including sexual abuse allegations, collusion with Russia, concerns about his mental health, obstruction of justice, hiring criminal or unfit officials for his administration, misogynistic comments, nepotism, taxpayer Secret Service expenses for his family’s travel, bankruptcies, dubious “bone spur” draft deferrals, mocking Sen. John McCain (even in death), racist and antisemitic statements, and dozens more. Many of these were not one-time issues but have dogged Trump for years.
What the “distraction tactic” theorists are asking us to do is connect one or more of Trump’s thousands of “newsworthy” statements (which ones? Take your pick) with one or more of Trumps hundreds of real, apparent, or potential scandals (which ones? Take your pick) and see that the former is being used to somehow distract from the latter.
Seeing hidden connections and causes is a common logical fallacy with a Latin name: post hoc ergo propter hoc (Latin for “after this, therefore because of it”). Because the human mind seeks connections, people often misattribute causes, thinking that “B happened after A did, so A must have caused B.” It makes sense, and it’s often true—but not always. It’s like saying “roosters crow before the sun rises, so the roosters must have made the sun rise.” Like a conspiracy theory, claims about the Trump Distraction Plan are not falsifiable and can’t be disproven.
The fact that Trump did or said something newsworthy (or outrageous) at the same time that some real or potential scandal looms over him is meaningless since he has always been mired in scandal, even before he was elected. Anything he says or does can be plausibly contrasted with some other contemporaneous issue he might conceivably want to distract from.
It’s important to note that if this indeed part of Trump’s master plan, it’s largely failing. Journalists tend to be a pretty savvy lot, and news organizations can cover more than one story at a time. The idea that there is a single spotlight that “the news media” train on a specific topic to the exclusion of other news stories is absurd. It’s true that a single reporter can usually only work on one story at a time, and that if a journalist is writing a piece about Trump’s offer to buy Greenland for example, he or she is not at the same time writing an in-depth piece about the effect that Trump’s trade war has on the American economy. That’s why newsrooms employ more than one reporter, in some cases dozens of them. Even if a reporter at a given organization is temporarily being tied up on some red herring “distraction” issue, there are many others who are working on reporting whatever topics are presumably being distracted from; it’s not an either/or proposition. (I previously wrote about the common—and often mistaken—complaint that “the media isn’t covering” a given story).
This is not to say that politicians and others never try to bury bad news behind even worse news or hope to distract or diminish the public’s attention. It’s a well-known tactic, and one reason why press offices often release bad news on Fridays. As Slate noted, “Investors and journalists have long complained that companies release bad news—a failed product trial, a recall, a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation—on Fridays, particularly after the market closes. The Friday release is a transparent attempt to evade fallout by burying bad news ahead of the weekend…. Why do companies try to bury the news on Friday? Whether you’re a press aide to a senator or an investor relations official, there’s a natural psychological tendency to take steps to ensure that good news is trumpeted loudly while bad news is whispered sotto voce. In addition, when things are going poorly at a company, executives tend to focus on strategies that will get them through the next few days, the next quarter, and the next year—in that order. If that means buying a few days’ reprieve with a Friday release, they’ll do it.”
But choosing what day to release information that will come out sooner or later is not the same as Trump issuing some false or bizarro comment that he knows will be covered in the hopes that it would somehow distract from some other topic he hopes will not be covered. There was even an infamous case of a British government advisor who suggested that the days after the September 11, 2001, attacks would be a good time to issue unpopular statements because the attacks would dominate the news coverage. This, also, was not a case of a person or government creating an intentional “distraction” from something else it was involved in.
It’s also worth noting that the Trump Distraction theory implicitly assumes that whatever
Trump is distracting from is worse than what he’s drawing attention to. But the fact is that Trump is widely criticized–and even mocked–for many of his alleged “distraction tactics.” His recent comments about Denmark and Jews have drawn widespread jokes and scathing attacks, including from Jewish groups who explicitly called them anti-Semitic. Whatever Trump would be trying to distract from, this hardly seems to be a winning strategy.
Of course it’s possible that Trump has, at some point, said something outrageous solely for the purpose of distracting from some other story. But there’s no evidence that it’s done routinely as part of some strategy by a political mastermind. He has a long history of lies, outlandish actions, and wild conspiracies. The principle of Occam’s Razor suggests that the simpler explanation is more likely to be the correct one: Trump’s wild statements are the result of pathology and impulse, not a considered strategy of social distraction.
Join us for a deep dive into some popular movies of the past few decades and their associated curses . . . some that are due to genuinely tragic or strangely coincidental circumstances, others that have been a bit cultivated by those wishing to market the movie or just tell a good yarn years after its release. Filmmaker and friend of the show Erik Myers joins Ben and Celestia to look at several horror films and a couple of superhero movies that have been rumored to have curses attached to them.