Jun 182017
 

Following up on my book Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore, I have occasionally written about varied speculativepseudohistories of the chupacabra, and indeed the subject is ripe for conjecture.

In a blog titled “The Secret Prehistory of the Chupacabra,” Jason Colavito writes that “the chupacabra name derives from 2,300 years of European and American traditions about nocturnal creatures that prey on livestock. And it all started with a small, completely harmless little bird.”

Colavito notes, correctly in my estimation, that “The first chupacabra was not a monster, nor was it a vampire. Originally, the goatsucker was so named not because the creature sucked blood like a vampire but because it sucked milk directly from the teat. The legend originates in a story told about the European nightjar (genus Caprimulgus), a smallish, nocturnal, and insectivorous bird that inexplicably developed a bad reputation, earning it the name ‘goatsucker.’ The first author to record this story is Aristotle, in his History of Animals, written around 350 BCE.”

So far so good; we agree that a small bird named chupacabra–like a great many birds around the world including owls, ravens, doves, etc.–had folkloric associations, in this case that it suckled goat milk. Where we part ways is in seeing clear links between the subject of my book and the bird of lore. I briefly discuss the goatsucker bird in the first chapter of my book (see page 4). The chupacabra monster is very specifically a vampire: it sucks blood from its victims. The “goat sucker” bird that shares its name instead sucks milk from goats, which is a different theme–there are few reports of surviving chupacabra victims, as the monster’s actions are typically said to be lethal. Also the word chupacabra (as specifically describing the subject of my book) was, from all indications referred specifically to rumors of goats being killed and drained of blood in rural Puerto Rico, not to the milk-drinking whippoorwill bird.

The best evidence is that the word chupacabra was first coined by San Juan-based radio deejay Silverio Pérez in late 1995 live while commenting on then-circulating rumors and tabloid stories about strange attacks on the island. I have been unable to find any pre-1995 references to a blood-sucking chupacabra in Puerto Rico or anywhere else–despite a standing $1,000 reward for any verifiable, published pre-1990s reference to a vampiric chupacabra–and Colavito offers none.

Colavito does an admirable job of tracing the linguistic lineage: “The name, in its now-obsolete Spanish form chotacabra, was in common use in Spanish America (including Puerto Rico) from at least the nineteenth century (and probably many centuries earlier), changing to chupacabra in the twentieth century when the older Spanish verb chotar (to suck) became obsolete and gave way to the newer synonym chupar… the nightjar is native to Puerto Rico, and I have been able to find printed references to the bird on the island as ‘chotacabra’ dating back to at least 1948….The change from the obsolete form chotacabra to the modern form chupacabra, reflecting changes in colloquial Spanish, masked the connection, leading to recent claims that the word did not exist prior to 1995.” Colavito does not account for (or glosses over) the notable absence of chupacabra (as referring to the now-familiar vampiric monster, not the bird) between the time that “chotar” became “chupar” and the eve of this century.

You can read the rest HERE.  And Colavito’s response is HERE. 

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

Jun 152017
 

I was recently interviewed for Vice media’s popular Motherboard site about my investigation into the 1997 Pokemon seizure mass hysteria incident, which was published both in the Southern Medical Journal and also in Skeptical Inquirer magazine sixteen years ago this month (May/June 2001). The series is titled “Science Solved It!” and the interview can be heard 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! 

Jun 132017
 

I was recently interviewed for Voice of Islam’s Drivetime radio show, discussing Orwell’s book 1984 and its relevance to 2017. The topics ranged from Big Brother mass surveillance, concerns about public privacy, and the use of doublespeak in politics (including under the current U.S. president). You can hear the interview HERE. 

 

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

Jun 052017
 

Apparently my book “Bad Clowns” is frequently bought along with a book titled “Future Sex.” I see my readers are optimists!

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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! 

Jun 022017
 

For those who missed it and are interested in spending an entertaining and informative–or at least minimally objectionable–75 minutes, may I suggest the most recent episode of The Folklore Podcast, in which we discuss folklore of the chupacabra…

Tracking the Chupacabra cover JPG

 

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

May 312017
 

In the recent episode of Squaring the Strange we examine a variety of things including the reputed demise of the MP3 format, the outcome of the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign, and we take a close look at the principle of corroboration in determining truth. Check it out!

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

May 282017
 

I was recently interviewed about George Orwell’s book 1984 and its relevance to today’s world, including concerns over Big Brother, privacy, and “doublespeak.” You can hear the show at this link (my segment starts around the 9 minute mark), and we will also be touching on this topic in a future episode of Squaring the Strange, so be sure to listen!

 

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May 262017
 

Soon after my recent appearance discussing folklore of the chupacabra (the topic of my book Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore), I got the following e-mail from a listener named James:

“I thought your appearance on The Folklore Podcast was very interesting and informative. It inspired me to search about chupacabras. One thing I came up with was about ‘Goat suckers’ and chotacabras. Too bad that I only have the 1997 version of the 1985 book The Jealous Potter by Claude Lévi-Strauss, but it sounds like there were a lot of myths/folklore about goat suckers in the folklore. Is there a reason you did not reference this in your book?”

I replied, “Thanks for reaching out to me, it’s good to hear from you. I’m glad you liked the Folklore Podcast interview, it was fun! Your question is a good one. I actually do briefly discuss the goatsucker bird in the first chapter of my book Tracking the Chupacabra (see page 4).

 

Tracking the Chupacabra cover JPG

The chupacabra monster is very specifically a vampire: it sucks blood from its victims. The “goat sucker” bird that shares its name instead sucks milk from goats, which is a very different theme (there are few if any reports of surviving chupacabra victims, as the monster’s actions are said to be lethal). Also the word chupacabra (as specifically describing the subject of my book) was, from all indications, coined in 1995 and referred specifically to rumors of goats being killed and drained of blood in rural Puerto Rico, not to the milk-drinking whippoorwill bird.

The main reason I didn’t go into much discussion about it is that as Levi-Strauss notes, stories about the bird are very diverse and difficult to classify (involving deities, marital jealousy, etc.). Other than one passing reference to a Tunuka Indian myth, there’s little or no vampiric aspect to it. As far as I know that’s the only reference to such blood sucking in The Jealous Potter, and in the quoted passage the attack is done by ghosts (souls of the dead), not the flesh-and-blood animal said to live on the island. Ghost folklore is interesting but not really relevant to the chupacabra I researched.

The coining of the word is, from my research, almost certainly a coincidence (chupacabra is an obvious coinage to describe anything said to prey on goats, regardless of its origin or nature). I suppose I could have added a few more sentences about the goat milk-drinking bird myths but since it wasn’t directly relevant to the chupacabra I was writing about (a supposedly real terrifying blood-sucking monster), I didn’t want to take the reader too far off track. I hope that answers your question, and I appreciate The Jealous Potter reference, which I missed!”

May 232017
 

My new CFI blog examines a case study in TV ghost hunting illogic and pseudoscience. “This show aired in 2016 when the two stars have, they claimed, a combined thirty years of ghost hunting experience. In any other career, a third of a century experience would result in demonstrably better results, but not in ghost hunting, where thirty minutes of ghost hunting experience can yield exactly the same results as thirty years.”

 

There is no one “right” way to investigate paranormal and ghost claims, except through the use of critical thinking and scientific methods. The techniques I present in my seminars and book Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries have proven themselves useful and effective in solving mysteries. They are drawn from many sources including professional investigations (such as procedures used by police detectives, FBI agents, and investigative journalists), scientific methodologies, formal and informal logic, psychology, personal experience, and other investigators-along with a dose of common sense.

Often it’s useful to provide examples of flawed investigations, and in that light I offer an analysis of a recent episode of the ghost hunting show Kindred Spirits titled “Breaking and Entering” (airdate November 18, 2016). In it former Ghost Hunters cast members Amy Bruni and Adam Berry investigate a supposedly haunted home owned by a woman named Meghan.

 

Read more HERE.

 

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

May 172017
 

My Skeptical Inquirer column about the purported links between EMF fields and ghosts is now online!

Many ghost hunters, including the T.A.P.S. team on the television show Ghost Hunters, use EMF detectors to search for electromagnetic fields because they believe that intense magnetic fields can create hallucinations, which in turn might create the illusion of ghosts. The basis for this theory comes primarily from research done by a Canadian cognitive neuroscientist, Michael Persinger. He found that hallucinations (such as out-of-body experiences) could be triggered by stimulating specific areas of the brain with fixed wavelength patterns of high-level electromagnetic fields…

You can read the rest HERE.

 

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

May 142017
 

Hey folks! The new episode of Squaring the Strange podcast is now out, and in it you can hear Pascual Romero and I in Part 2 of the series on Jamaican ghosts and folklore (this carving below is of a Jamaican “duppy”). Listen here! https://squaringthestrange.wordpress.com/

 

Moon duppy

 

 

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

May 122017
 

Nice note from a teacher friend of mine, glad to see an article I wrote several years ago is still being read and steering people toward skepticism…

 

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

May 082017
 

How useful is the Facebook ‘Safety Check’ function during terrorism and disaster? A closer look in my CFI blog…

When the attacks in London happened, many people used Facebook’s “Safety Check” functions to alert friends and family that they were safe.

When launching the feature, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced, “When disasters happen, people need to know their loved ones are safe. It’s moments like this that being able to connect really matters.” As Wired explains, “When activated, Safety Check locates Facebook users near a disaster site through the city they list on their profile, or from where they last used the Internet. Users then receive a notification asking to confirm that they’re safe or to say that they weren’t in the affected area. Those who choose ‘safe’ generate a notification to their friends and followers, who can track how many of their friends were affected.”

I’m sure the effort is well intended, but my natural skepticism led me to wonder just how useful it really is. There are about 10 million people in London at any given time (8.5 million residents plus another 1.5 million visitors per month, roughly) and the chances that any given one of them will be harmed or killed in terrorism or a natural disaster is very remote.

You can read the rest HERE. 

 

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

May 052017
 

Hey folks! After co-founding and co-hosting the Parsec-winning “MonsterTalk” podcast, I’m returning with co-host Pascual Romero for “Squaring the Strange.” The show brings evidence-based analysis and commentary to a wide variety of topics, ranging from the paranormal to the political, the mysterious to the mundane. Our first month of shows is now out, please give it a listen!

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May 022017
 

I recently stumbled across this photo on Twitter depicting an African Cultural Studies professor referencing my investigation into the skeptic-raping monster popobawa– and my “Fortean Times” cover article on the topic…

 

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

Apr 302017
 

I recently recorded an in-studio segment with Shabam!, a new science podcast for kids. My role: explaining skepticism, and how to think critically and evaluate claims:

Shabam! is a new type of science show that blends fictional stories with real science. If you love science but hate those awkward scientist interviews that involve graphs and confusing metaphors, you’re in luck. First off, Shabam! is an audio program – so no graphs. And second, through the magic of sound effects and music, you’ll hear stories that reveal the awesomeness in the world around us – like cellphones and vaccinations.

In season one, our main story is about three kids separated from their parents during a Zombie apocalypse. Over the course of 10 episodes we follow their quest to reunite with their families. But their experience leads us to another conclusion – that there’s a lot of science all around us that we take for granted.

And finally, you may be wondering whether we’ve added silly songs and jokes to make up for the fact that we can’t show you graphs. Yes we have. Also, we only interview cool scientists who aren’t awkward, which means the whole family can enjoy it!

 

I’ll let you know when it’s out!

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

Apr 272017
 

A new podcast cohosted by Pascual Romero and myself, Squaring the Strange brings evidence-based analysis and commentary to a wide variety of topics, ranging from the paranormal to the political, the mysterious to the mundane.

 

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Investigating ghosts.

Debunking conspiracies.

Tracking chupacabras.

Calling shenanigans where appropriate….

 

If a claim seems strange, we will try to square it with the facts. Not just another “skeptical” podcast talking about current events, Squaring the Strange goes deeper. It’s a show about critical thinking and evidence-based analysis, using science and logic to examine the world around us. Listeners will learn about psychology, myths, hoaxes, folklore, science, and all the things that add up to strange experiences—both real and unreal.

The show is produced by Pascual Romero, with Celestia Ward as content producer and featuring me as understudy to the assistant co-associate content producer.

You can listen to Squaring the Strange on iTunes and find us on Facebook, Twitter (at @SquaringStrange), and elsewhere on social media. The program is 100% volunteer; if you’d like to help support Squaring the Strange, please consider contributing to our Patreon account or leave us a review!

 

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

Apr 202017
 

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

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

Apr 182017
 

“This photo of Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg has one convicted felon; if you immediately assumed it was Stewart, you should think again!”

mindful of stereotypes!

This meme is a wonderful lesson in prejudice and stereotypes–or at least it would be if they weren’t both convicted felons… Stay skeptical, my friends!

 

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

Apr 152017
 

I was recently a guest on the NPR affiliate WAMU in D.C., “The Kojo Nnamdi Show”, talking about the role of skepticism and media literacy in recent rumors of child abductions. You can hear the interview HERE. 

 

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

Apr 122017
 

An inspirational cancer survivor widely honored (and featured in Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” video) turns out to have made up or changed important parts of her past. Now many of her supporters are feeling betrayed, accusing her of theft, faking illness, and worse. It’s a fascinating lesson in how easily people can be manipulated by tapping into popular narratives, and why critical thinking is important…

You can read the remarkable, in-depth CNN article HERE. 

 

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

Apr 102017
 

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

 

You can read the whole story HERE. 

 

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

Apr 082017
 

I was recently interviewed by Vice media about my investigation into the 1997 Pokemon Seizure case.

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I think the girl who got me a latte at my favorite coffee shop wasn’t even born when I solved that mystery…

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

Apr 052017
 

A Memphis mother calls police saying that her baby son was kidnapped by a Black man who stole her car. An Amber Alert was issued; police dogs, helicopters, and searchers scoured the area for hours–and find that her baby was never missing.

Skeptics and skeptical researchers routinely encounter and investigate a wide variety false reports: False reports of Bigfoot, UFOs, miracle healings, alien abductions, psychics, illnesses, and so on. I’ve personally investigated many such reports, including of phantom clowns (see my book Bad Clowns for more), racist conspiracy theories and legends (such as the Blood Libel anti-Jewish myth and anti-Muslim stories), and more. The xenophobic archetype of the evil outsider is ancient and takes on new forms. Understanding the psychology and motivations behind false reports can be enormously helpful. Some of them are hoaxes, but many are the result of sincere mistakes, misperceptions, and other cognitive errors.

When false reports concern “unexplained” topics (faked ghost sightings or UFO photos, for example), the result is usually just wasted time and the loss of credibility of a hoaxer or its proponents. However when false reports involve real-world subjects (for lack of a better term) they often implicate minorities and can result in miscarriages of justice. False reports of crimes, for example, are often used as a weapon against minorities.

You may recall Susan Smith, the mother who in 1994 blamed an African-American man for kidnapping her children when she in fact drowned them in a lake. Or Jennifer Wilbanks, the so-called “Runaway Bride” who claimed to have been kidnapped and assaulted by a Hispanic man, but who had in fact voluntarily left her groom at the altar. Or the infamous Central Park Five case, in which five Black and Latino teenagers were arrested in 1989 for the brutal rape and assault of a white jogger in New York’s Central Park. Many people–including Donald Trump and African-American poet Sapphire (author of Push, from which the Oscar-winning film Precious was adapted)–jumped on the bandwagon falsely accusing the young men of the crime. The list goes on and on… and continues today.

For a more in-depth analysis see my CFI blog HERE. 

 

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

 

Mar 252017
 

My recent interview on NPR about UFOs and aliens, opposite Leslie Kean, George Noory, and others, is now out. It’s not a bad show, but if you want to hear some skepticism, start about 40 minutes in… you can listen HERE.

From the Colin McEnroe show:

UFOs have been reported in America since the 1600s. And in all that time our government has largely dismissed the objects as being of Earthly origin. But this culture of dismissal in the U.S. is not indicative of how sightings are handled around the world. Some foreign governments readily discuss the possibility of extraterrestrials having visited Earth, and others go so far as to openly support the possibility.

As reports of UFO sightings in America have skyrocketed since the 1940’s, we ask why the phenomenon isn’t given a more serious look. We’ll examine some of the most compelling cases of all time and ask what it is about these unidentified objects that captivates the imaginations of so many. This hour we speak with believers and skeptics about UFO’s.

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

Mar 202017
 

While there are many factors in Trump’s rise, one of the most bizarre is his use of conspiracies. Whether the topic is voter fraud, Obama wiretapping Trump Towers, or anti-vaccination arguments, no modern politician has so successfully and routinely employed conspiracy theories as Donald Trump.

Political conspiracies, both real (Watergate) and dubious (G.W. Bush was behind the 9/11 attacks) are nothing new. In the 16th and 17th centuries, for example, during outbreaks of the bubonic plague, dozens of people in what is now Switzerland and Italy were arrested and accused of intentionally spreading the disease as part of a plot to steal from sickened, wealthy landowners.

But Trump’s endorsement of conspiracies is unprecedented in American politics. Trump enjoys flirting with fringe and extremist elements including conspiracy theorists. Trump has also appeared on the radio show of noted conspiracy advocate Alex Jones, who has repeatedly claimed that the Obama administration has faked or staged domestic shootings (including the Sandy Hook school massacre) as a pretext for confiscating American’s guns.

You can read the rest HERE.

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

Mar 182017
 

My article on the scope of skepticism from Skeptical Inquirer magazine is now online: “Pseudoscience, superstition, and nonsense will always be with us in some form, wasting human resource and preying on the vulnerable. As long as there is darkness, skeptics will be there to fight for the light amid a chorus of curses.”

 

The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer are celebrating forty years of organized modern skepticism—though of course skepticism itself has a long and honorable tradition, as practiced by Harry Houdini, Benjamin Franklin, Reginald Scot, David Hume, and others.

As it happens I have been closely involved with CSICOP/CSI for half of its existence, and therefore much of my adult life (had I been told at ten what I’d be doing at forty, I’d have considered that an extraordinary claim indeed). In some ways, the decades seem to have passed in the blink of an eye, and in other ways, it has taken an eternity.

I wasn’t there in the early years: the heady seventies when astrology was rampant and Uri Geller was cranking out the woo trying to stay one step ahead of James “The Amazing” Randi. My entry to skepticism came in the mid-1990s when I began writing for Skeptical Inquirer after seeing a back issue (with a cover article by Randi) debunking a certain famously ambiguous and wily French author. A few years later at conferences, I got to meet both Randi and Carl Sagan, and with the encouragement of those two pillars of skepticism and others—as well as a fortunately timed editorial vacancy at Skeptical Inquirer—I joined the organization.

You can read the rest HERE. 

 

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

Mar 152017
 

For centuries rumors circulated about an ancient lost city—not Atlantis but a “White City” of immense wealth hidden in the Honduran jungles of Central America. Myths of treasure and every imaginable curse run rampant—but the fact that the city existed somewhere out in the jungles was widely accepted by Hondurans.

I attended a talk by Doug Preston, about his research and new book The Lost City of the Monkey God—at Albuquerque’s historic KiMo theater, whose resident ghost I investigated and debunked several years ago (as described in the first chapter of my book Mysterious New Mexico)—and followed up with a telephone interview, excerpted here.

Radford: You seem to have a knack for finding yourself in the middle of fascinating mysteries and real-life adventures, between the deadly jungles of The Lost City and The Monster of Florence, where you’re tangling with a serial killer. Most writers lead a fairly sedentary life—why are you different?

Preston: “Well I think it’s probably a little bit of stupidity there [laughing]. I find myself falling into my own stories, like with The Monster of Florence I started off thinking I was writing a story about these long-ago crimes in Florence, these serial killings, but all of a sudden we [Preston and his co-author Mario Spezi] got pulled in by the police investigation, and pretty soon I was being interrogated as a suspect… it was really crazy.”

 

Radford: As you talk about in the book, finding the Lost City came at a great cost, both in terms of the expedition, your health, and other factors. Can you talk about what went into finding it?

Preston: “The legend of the Lost City did talk about the city being cursed, that all who went in there would become sick and die, and so forth. And of course I completely dismissed those legends. Well it turns out that part of the legend is kind of based on the truth, and that is that the valley is a hotzone of disease, and two-thirds of the expedition came down with this really serious tropical disease called mucocutaneous leishmaniasis. It’s incurable, I’ll have it for the rest of my life, and it’s really quite an awful disease. But I’m getting excellent treatment.”

 

Radford: You talk about some of the myths and legends surrounding the city; where did they come from?

Preston: “These legends and stories really date back about 500 years to the time of Cortez. He wrote a famous letter in 1526 while he was in Honduras to the emperor Charles V and reported that he’d heard very reliable information of a wonderful and rich civilization in the interior of Honduras, very wealthy and rich an advanced culture, and ever since then there have been legends and stories about this lost city, sometimes called the White City, Ciudad Blanca, sometimes called the Lost City of the Monkey God, somewhere in these mountains. A number of people have looked for it, and some have actually died in the search…Like most legends, it’s based on the truth, it’s based on the fact that there was a great civilization in this area that actually built more than one city.”

 

Radford: Let me touch on some of the challenges to writers and science popularizers when reporting a story such as this. There’s always a tension between wanting to communicate complex ideas in science, anthropology, archaeology, and so on to the public, but not overly sensationalize them. You touch on that in your book, expressing a bit of reluctance about calling it a “lost city” in the vein of Indiana Jones, but in the end you have to get people’s attention.

Preston: “Well, this is something that you as a science journalist know about very well… As you mentioned, you have to strike a balance between writing a heavy and scientific tome which nobody will read except scientists, or going too much in the other direction and writing something that’s so frivolous and non-factual that you’ve really done a very great disservice to the science. I try to occupy the middle ground. Everything in the book is accurate, nothing is made up, everything has been very carefully vetted—but it is exciting, this is a sensational discovery…. As for using language like the ‘lost city,’ well it is a city and it is lost! I know some archaeologists have said, ‘Oh, that’s just Indiana Jones hype’ but in fact it isn’t hype. It is actually real and it is quite exciting, and I want to convey that excitement to the reader without burdening them with a lot of scientific jargon.”

 

Read the rest of the interview HERE.

 

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

Mar 112017
 

From a review of my book Bad Clowns in Fortean Times magazine (Issue 349): “Benjamin Radford shows in his masterful survey that bad clowns have always been with us…. This is not a dry or scholarly read, and there’s a lot of welcome debunking. Bad Clowns moves colorfully and quickly, thanks to Radford’s acerbic wit. Verdict: A clown car just stuffed with insight and wit. 8 out of 10.”

Not bad!

Bad Clowns small

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

Mar 052017
 

My recent blog on how a faked abduction may have contributed to the mosque shooting in Quebec, and why false crime reports often target minorities…

 

Skeptics and skeptical researchers routinely encounter and investigate a wide variety false reports: False reports of Bigfoot, UFOs, miracle healings, alien abductions, psychics, illnesses, and so on. I’ve personally investigated many such reports, including of phantom clowns (see my book Bad Clowns for more), racist conspiracy theories and legends (such as the Blood Libel anti-Jewish myth and anti-Muslim stories), and more. The xenophobic archetype of the evil outsider is ancient and takes on new forms. Understanding the psychology and motivations behind false reports can be enormously helpful. Some of them are hoaxes, but many are the result of sincere mistakes, misperceptions, and other cognitive errors.

When false reports concern “unexplained” topics (faked ghost sightings or UFO photos, for example), the result is usually just wasted time and the loss of credibility of a hoaxer or its proponents. However when false reports involve real-world subjects (for lack of a better term) they often implicate minorities and can result in miscarriages of justice. False reports of crimes, for example, are often used as a weapon against minorities.

You may recall Susan Smith, the mother who in 1994 blamed an African-American man for kidnapping her children when she in fact drowned them in a lake. Or Jennifer Wilbanks, the so-called “Runaway Bride” who claimed to have been kidnapped and assaulted by a Hispanic man, but who had in fact voluntarily left her groom at the altar. Or the infamous Central Park Five case, in which five Black and Latino teenagers were arrested in 1989 for the brutal rape and assault of a white jogger in New York’s Central Park. Many people–including Donald Trump and African-American poet Sapphire (author of Push, from which the Oscar-winning film Precious was adapted)–jumped on the bandwagon falsely accusing the young men of the crime. The list goes on and on… and continues today…

The Abduction of Alyssa Langille

On Sunday January 15, a 15-year-old Canadian girl named Alyssa Langille was abducted by two men in Mississauga, near Toronto. According to news reports, “A witness said two men jumped out of a silver van at St. Barbara Blvd. and Comiskey Cres. just after 1 p.m. on Sunday. They forced the girl into the van and were last seen heading south on St. Barbara towards Derry Rd., according to the witness.” The suspects were described as a “South Asian man around 24 years old, described as tall with a thin build, and wearing an orange turban with a grey sweater with cut off sleeves and a green shirt underneath. The second was simply described as a South Asian male.” Based on that information an Amber Alert was issued, and the news media told the public to be on the lookout for these abductors and their victim.

Exactly two weeks later in the neighboring province of Quebec, a man named Alexandre Bissonnette allegedly opened fire in a mosque, killing six people and wounding eight others in what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a “terrorist attack on Muslims.”

Though the suspects in Langille’s abduction were not specifically identified as Muslim–Sikhs and other turban-wearing groups have of course been mistaken for Muslims–the South Asian nation of Indonesia has a high percentage of Muslims, and the implication was clear to Canadian audiences. In another layer of fear-fueling misinformation about minorities, Fox News falsely tweeted that the suspect in the attack was of North African heritage, specifically Moroccan. Fox News eventually removed the information after being asked to do so by Trudeau’s director of communications, Kate Purchase. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation also made the same error.

As it turns out Alyssa Langille was not in fact abducted. Her father had called police after the girl’s sister found that Alyssa had placed clothes in her bed to make it appear as though she was still sleeping in it, but she had run away. Toronto police found Alyssa in Scarborough, a district of Toronto, unharmed.

It’s easy to see how Langille’s abduction would have hit a nerve, especially in Canada’s eastern provinces; as The New York Times noted, “right-wing extremism has long thrived in Canada among skinheads, white supremacists and others,” particularly in Quebec. The racist trope of the ethnic foreigner preying on young white women is particularly evocative; perhaps one of the best known cases involved Emmett Till, the African-American teenager who was lynched in Mississippi at the age of 14 in 1955 after reportedly flirting with a White woman. According to recent news reports, Till’s “accuser has recanted the most incendiary parts of her claims against him. Carolyn Bryant Donham told author Timothy B. Tyson that her long-ago allegations that Emmett grabbed her and was menacing and sexually crude toward her, ‘that part is not true.'” Indeed, defending the “honor” of White females is a longstanding theme in White nationalism.

Whether the (non)abduction of Langille partly inspired Bissonnette to attack the mosque is unknown at the moment, but it is almost certain that the social media-savvy extremist was aware that a dark-skinned turban-wearing man and his colleague were being sought in connection with the abduction–or worse–of the young blonde woman.

There is a further ironic twist to this story. Usually it is the “victim” who falsely accuses racial or ethnic minorities of their kidnapping or assault–often because it lends crediblity to their claims and plays into widely accepted negative stereotypes about those groups. In this case it turns out the eyewitness who claimed to have seen Alyssa Langille abducted by a turban-wearing man in a van was Uzma Khan, described as “a 32-year-old woman from Mississauga” Ontario, who has now been charged with public mischief for her false report and is due in court later this month.

It’s not known why Khan made the false report–perhaps it was for attention, or she misunderstood something she saw–but her decision to specify that a fictional abductor resembled a popular image of Muslims may have had results she could not have predicted. False crime reports of any kind are not only a waste of police resources and divert attention from real victims, but they can also have real-world consequences.

Feb 282017
 

I got a Google Scholar alerting me that my research on African witchcraft and superstition belief is cited in a new academic book, “Witchcraft as a Social Diagnosis.” Glad my work is helping to bring attention to the dangers and injustice of modern-day witch hunts!

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Feb 252017
 

Those times you really agree with someone, then they go off the rails… my new CFI blog:

About once or twice a month (though sometimes once or twice a week, depending on how much I’m reading at the time), I come across an article or blog that makes some important point that I agree with. Maybe it’s about the need for skepticism, or about politics, or anything else. I’m reading along, nodding in approval in paragraph after paragraph (or assertion after assertion), pleased at thinking about those it might educate.

And, just as my finger is reaching to share or like the post, I wince. The writer or commenter stumbles, making a gaffe or mistake that I can’t in good conscience implicitly endorse. It’s frustrating because I agree with the overall point, and think the comment or piece merits a wider audience.

It’s like some well-intentioned skeptic writing a piece about why the evidence for Bigfoot (or recovered memories, or alien visitation) is poor, and giving two solid, accurate reasons–followed by a third which is flat-out wrong, or an argument whose premise is embarrassingly flawed. This happens regularly enough that I’ve taken to describing it (to myself anyway) as The 10% Fail. Ninety percent of it is on target, but the last ten percent undermines the author’s credibility in some way. This issue is a common lament among professional skeptics: a well-meaning but inexperienced skeptic goes on television or gives an interview-ostensibly representing organized skepticism–in which he or she misspeaks or mangles some salient fact in the process of debunking some bogus claim, and that error is then seized upon by opponents as proof that skeptics (writ large) don’t know what they’re talking about.

I recently found an example of this, written by Andrew David Thaler of the Southern Fried Science…

Read more HERE. 

Feb 222017
 

From a review of my book Bad Clowns in Fortean Times magazine (Issue 349): “Benjamin Radford shows in his masterful survey that bad clowns have always been with us…. This is not a dry or scholarly read, and there’s a lot of welcome debunking. Bad Clowns moves colorfully and quickly, thanks to Radford’s acerbic wit. Verdict: A clown car just stuffed with insight and wit. 8 out of 10.”

 

Bad Clowns FT review