Aug 082022

False abuse claims are, sadly, being used to settle grudges: “The partner of Vanessa Wilson, the former Aurora, Colorado police chief, was charged with filing a fabricated child sex abuse report. Robin Niceta anonymously called Arapahoe County social services on Jan. 28 ‘to falsely report that Aurora Councilwoman Danielle Jurinsky was sexually abusing Jurinsky’s two-year-old son.’ The call prompted a 2-week investigation. After finding that the claims were false, investigators traced the tip to Niceta’s phone.”


Jul 232022

In the wake of the recent verdict in the dueling defamation lawsuits between actors Amber Heard and Johnny Depp, there was of course much punditry, commentary, and crystal gazing. It was seen not merely as an outcome of one trial between two often-toxic celebrities but a harbinger of social trends to come.

New York Times staff editor Spencer Bokat-Lindell wrote a piece titled “Is the #MeToo Movement Dying?” in which he noted that the trial “has been read as a low-water mark for the movement: After and even before the jury found last week that each had defamed the other, awarding $2 million in damages to Heard and $10 million to Depp, commentators were declaring ‘the death’ and ‘the end’ of #MeToo.” Rolling Stone magazine added: “’This is basically the end of MeToo,’ Dr. Jessica Taylor, a psychologist, forensic psychology Ph.D., and author of two books on misogyny and abuse, tells Rolling Stone. ‘It’s the death of the whole movement.’”

Conservative news media also joined in the chorus; as Media Matters noted, “After the verdict was announced, Fox News gleefully celebrated the supposed end of the #MeToo movement. In the minutes after the news broke, anchor Martha MacCallum declared, ‘This puts a bit of a stake in the heart of the notion that you believe all women.’ On The Five, co-host Greg Gutfeld sniped that Heard had ‘used the #MeToo movement and now she’s betrayed the #MeToo movement. You can’t believe all women, is basically what this case is saying.’”

However, it seems that pundits on both sides of the issue got it wrong—as they often do.

The verdict was about the claims and evidence in that case specifically, and there’s little evidence suggesting that it would (or will) be a death knell for the movement. I described this phenomenon as the Ubiquitous Referenda in my new book, America the Fearful: Media and the Marketing of National Panics:

It seems that these days most news national and world events are treated as important bellwethers or referenda about the state of our country and the state of the world. This is partly why activists on all sides feel the need to characterize events as a clear step toward social destruction. For example in early 2016 predictions were made that if Trump was elected his sexism and misogyny would influence a generation of young American men and lead to increases of sexual harassment and assault.

Every politically or socially charged news event is framed as a decisive moment where the misguided must be corrected, others must be shown the error of their ways. We jump from week to week, hearing about mistreated airline passengers or people saying mean things about celebrities. The barbarians are at the gates again today, everything is outrageous, everything is crucial, and all dutiful Americans should once again gather along the virtual parapets to loudly remind ourselves (and those misguided souls on the other side) that we publicly denounce them.

There are several problems with this approach. First, it seems to assume, without evidence, that American culture itself is fragile and hinges on some event, that if these incidents are not strongly and widely denounced then American society will self-evidently come to see these things (sexism, racism, sexual assault) as socially sanctioned and acceptable or “normal.” A popular headline for op-eds is, indeed, “This Is Not Normal,” as well-intentioned critics remind readers about some abnormal aspect of their lives against which they should remain vigilant. The fact is that people are not nearly as easily influenced as widely believed (and especially as advertisers would have us believe, as described later); we should know how hard it is to convince people of anything—even when we have facts and science on our side.

The idea that America is on a powderkeg, on a razor’s edge and about to explode into riots and wars based on gender, politics, or race. Ironically, it’s often fringe right-wingers—those who obsess over and interpret each real or perceived racial injustice through some blinkered prism—who are most likely to believe that America is a small step from cultural revolution.

When a Ku Klux Klan rally was scheduled for downtown Dayton, Ohio, in May 2019, Rabbi Ari Ballaban, director of Dayton’s Jewish Community Relations Council, was quoted in local news media warning of unrest and violence, stating that “Courthouse Square will be a powder keg.” Those expecting blood in the streets and race riots need not have feared; a grand total of nine people showed up for the racist rally. They were dwarfed by the estimated 500 to 600 counter-protesters of all races and colors, many shouting slogans and holding signs such as “You Are Not Welcome Here,” “Refugees Welcome, Racists Go Home,” and “Injustice Anywhere Is a Threat to Justice Everywhere.” Local businesses displayed signs such as “Get your hatin’ out of Dayton” and “fucKKK off.” There are many other examples, but for a country as deeply racist as America is said to be, the vast majority of Americans seem to be doing their best to denounce racism and intolerance at every turn. The rabbi, like many others, had overestimated the support that the Klan had locally.

It’s very difficult to get individual people to change their behaviors, even when they are given explicit information on what to do and how to do it. There’s no mystery about how to lose weight or quit smoking, but few people do. People, like ships, have difficulty changing direction; inertia and routine (physical as well as mental) keep us doing the same things, even when we know we shouldn’t. Countries, that is, collectives of hundreds of millions of people, change even more slowly. Institutional reforms take years or decades, not weeks or months—a point often missed by those who demand immediate social and justice reforms. 

For some reason people who are comfortably stuck in their own ways and worldviews assume that other people—They of the third-person effect—are on the precipice of changing their minds (for the worse, of course) should they be exposed to “wrong” ideas. They are in danger of adopting sexist behavior because of Game of Thrones or the optional female voices available for Siri and Alexa, or going down the rabbit hole of violence because of violent video games or movies.  

There’s also outrage fatigue to consider; when everything is a crisis, nothing is a crisis. When people spend their days looking for (real or imagined) things to be outraged about, it muddies the waters and makes it hard to distinguish real problems from manufactured ones, serious issues with a high potential for real harm from others with a much lower potential for some inchoate, potential harm. Just as atmospheric smog takes a toll on the health of both people and societies, fear smog takes a collective toll on psychological and social health.

Part of this is the fear that the unwashed masses, the semi-fictional “They” who aren’t as enlightened as you and I, will be easily swayed and misunderstand the situation: If we don’t make it clear that Trump’s sexism is unacceptable, They (high school kids? young men?) will think it’s okay and America will have a generation of rapists and misogynists. If we don’t make it clear that racist marchers are unacceptable, They (non-racists or those on the fence about whether to be racist?) will think it’s okay and America will sow a generation of Nazis.

The good news is there’s little or no good evidence for this assumption. Most of these are testable claims: either sexual assaults go up in the months and years following Trump’s election, or they don’t (they didn’t). Critics might argue an essentially unfalsifiable claim, that their protests prevented or minimized the harm (i.e., if Trump hadn’t been universally condemned for his remarks about grabbing women, he would have had more influence, or if the Virginia and Ohio racists hadn’t been drowned out by counter-protestors and a deluge of mockery and bad press, they would have gotten more recruits). It’s possible, though doubtful—and of course we will never know, precisely because all these things have been widely condemned by most Americans.

This rationalization is reminiscent of doomsday cults, who, when confronted with the fact that the world did not end as they had predicted, claim that their dire prophecy, along with the resulting awareness campaigns and vigilant prayers, had saved the day. The doomsday cultists then pat themselves on the backs, because, after all, they just saved the world—and no one can prove otherwise. As Trump’s presidency ended we have not seen a jump in Americans who think sexually assaulting women is acceptable. Nor was there a surge in membership to white nationalist organizations after people saw the Charlottesville rally and said, “Wow, those guys are right and make sense!” Instead, virtually all the news coverage about it has been negative—as it always is.

Are there exceptions? Of course. Out of hundreds of millions of Americans, a few will see some Klan rally, ignore the overwhelming social criticism of it, and join up. Similarly it’s possible (though unlikely) that a few women may in fact be deterred from reporting their assaults because it took so long for Bill Cosby to be convicted, and that some trolling dudebro will cite Trump when he’s arrested for grabbing his date’s crotch. These are the rare exceptions, not the rule, and the amount of energy directed to these specific events (as opposed to the larger issues—sexism, racism, etc., which are valid and real but hardly represented by these events) is wildly disproportionate to the threat.

Protesting can bring about change, and that’s valuable. But over-protesting undermines its effectiveness, and saturating our airwaves (or social media feeds) with the worst elements of society as if they are representative of America insults those who have worked so hard to bring about the progress we should celebrate and emulate. There’s also an element of virtue signaling and pageantry in today’s clever protest march signs and hashtag activism, of course. The point is not that people shouldn’t protest things they find offensive or wrong (do whatever you want), but instead that there are dangers and pitfalls in how people are approaching it. There are real, legitimate watershed moments in American history (Roe v. Wade and its overturning, Obama’s election, George Floyd’s death, etc.) but we lose our ability to spot these moments if we are feeding ourselves a daily diet of outrage.

Whether the Heard/Depp verdict truly is the nail in the #MeToo coffin—as both progressives and conservatives have claimed—remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely. For years, polls and survey have found that the American public overwhelmingly does believe women when they come forward with claims of abuse. Whether Americans supported Heard, Depp, or were indifferent, the verdict is likely to have little effect on real victims coming forward.

For more on this, see my book America the Fearful, and check out my recent lecture for Skeptical Inquirer Presents.

May 182022

In my previous blog I discussed the (real and performative) outrage over Will Smith attacking Chris Rock at the Oscars, and the curious lack of outrage over co-host Amy Schumer’s long history of (alleged) racism. From racist jokes to behavior, Schumer’s past would seem to be problematic—especially for an Oscars that, for the first time, was run by an all-black production team. I wondered whether Schumer’s inclusion would only be seen (or, if you prefer, recognized) as problematic in retrospect.

My interest here is the how the subjective assumptions of harm change over time.

The question of “How did we not see this?” is often asked, retrospectively, about problematic entertainment such as beloved teen comedies including The Breakfast Club.

This response is interesting for a couple of reasons, including that the film’s plot contains a problematic theme or message. Of course many popular films and TV shows have potentially problematic plots, ranging from murder to incest to abuse (Game of Thrones, for example, manages a hat trick here); there’s nothing necessarily bad or toxic about messed up plots. So the real concern seems to be that The Breakfast Club—to take just one prominent example—was intended to depict aspirational and healthy real-life situations; that is that the audiences watched the film and believed that the characters’ behaviors were good or should be modeled. For many reasons—including having a background in psychology, education, and media literacy—I don’t actually think that’s a valid assumption (for more on this, see my CFI blog Fifty Shades of…Fear).

Policing Problematic Content

There is a long history of people fearing what nefarious influences in entertainment—typically on those society deems most gullible and feeble-minded; in centuries past this usually meant women and children, and in practice this fear of entertainment was often used to justify censorship and women’s oppression. The same principle underlies recent conservative concerns over Critical Race Theory and the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bills. The foundational fear is that children will be influenced—that is, corrupted—by exposure to information (never mind that Critical Race Theory has never been taught in public schools).

In her 2001 book Not In Front of the Children: ‘Indecency,’ Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth, Marjorie Heins notes that “Contemporary concerns about shielding children and adolescents from corrupting sexual ideas are traceable directly to Victorian-era fears that libidinous thoughts would lead to the ‘secret vice’ of masturbation. Proscriptions against arousing literature, relatively rare before 1800, thus became pervasive in the century that followed.”

Those proscriptions were often formalized into law. “The purpose of obscenity law was thus to prevent immoral literature from falling into the wrong hands, whether they be those of servants, the mentally deficient, women, or minors. That women and mental defectives were included among the classes to be ‘protected’ was consistent with the ideology of an era when, as Peter Gay recounts, women were also classed with ‘criminals, idiots, and minors’ for purposes of property and inheritance law.”  

Though ostensibly claimed to protect women, the fears were used to oppress them, deny their agency, and treat them as vulnerable victims. In fact, Anthony Comstock, director of the notorious censorship-happy Society for the Suppression of Vice, singled out feminists for targeting. Concerns over needing to “protect” delicate women from potentially harmful materials was a central feature of Comstock’s misogynistic mission. Suffragette and birth control advocate Mary Ware Dennett wrote a frank (and sex-positive) sex education pamphlet The Sex Side of Life in 1911, which later caused her to be targeted by Comstock. For more, see my interview with feminist sex educator Shelby Knox.

Problematic Subjectivity

What’s often missed in these arguments is that in many cases there were people objecting to the content at the time, and they were largely ignored. Why? Because the people complaining were often (rightly or wrongly) dismissed as religious fundamentalist ninnies who needed to lighten up and take a joke.

I lived through it and remember it well; the Moral Majority crowd and Tipper Gore, among many others, were trying to tell musicians and artists what content they should create (and succeeded in getting parental warning labels on potentially objectionable music content that remains to this day). For a reminder, see RUN-DMC’s video for their hit “Mary Mary,” which features protesters complaining about the sex and violence in rap videos.

It’s satire, of course, but represents a vocal minority that tried to curb entertainment, from RUN DMC and NWA to Guns N Roses to Judas Priest. It wasn’t just rap lyrics; it was also violent video games and even tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons—with all the accompanying Satanic Panic fears. And, yes, it was also raunchy teen comedies of the 1980s and 1990s, claimed to be exposing impressionable youth to inappropriate language, nudity, and sex.

I always wonder what things we take as acceptable today will be considered problematic in 20 or 30 years. For example the recent Superbowl halftime performance was widely praised, but featured at least three performers who have been accused of rape, abuse against women, and/or having violent, rapey and homophobic lyrics (Eminem, Dre, and Snoop Dogg). Some conservatives predictably groused, but the liberals and progressives were another matter. Most of them (rightly) praised the show for its diversity and performance, but were conspicuously silent about the problematic pasts of several of the performers. Like Amy Schumer four months later—and, arguably, like The Breakfast Club some 37 years earlier—it was ignored.

To be clear: I take no particular offense at any of these performers—Dre’s NWA colleague Eazy-E is more my style, and I’ve seen Schumer perform live—but why their problematic pasts were ignored is an interesting question: Is it a lack of sufficient sensitivity (what some might derisively term “wokeness”), or due to the inherently subjective and ambiguous nature of outrage and offense, or even hypocrisy?

Were 2022 audiences oblivious to, or unaware of, Schumer’s racist past or the problematic pasts of Eminem, Dre, and Snoop Dogg? Possibly. Or they just didn’t care or take it seriously because they were enjoying the show.

Were 1985 audiences oblivious to, or unaware of, the (apparently) problematic themes in The Breakfast Club? Possibly. Or they just didn’t care or take it seriously because they were enjoying the show.

Will our kids look back and shake their heads in dismay about why we didn’t stand up and protest? Are we right now to let those things pass without objection, or were we right then? In other words if the difference is that we (that is, kids today and ourselves) are more enlightened than we were back then, why aren’t we (and they) expressing due outrage now?

Part of the answer may lie in the fact that the idea that lay audiences have a social obligation to complain or “make their voices heard” and warn others about potentially problematic scenes and themes in entertainment is a relatively recent development. In decades past, some people might complain about sex or violence in entertainment, but it was often a handful of self-appointed moral guardians (Anthony Comstock, Fredric Wertham, or Tipper Gore, for example) who would champion the cause, often for personal and political gain.

But there has been a rise in offense culture over the past decade—greatly enabled by social media—of people who feel the need to denounce and highlight materials they believe are socially damaging, regardless of whether there is any objective evidence for that harm or not. It’s not so much that audiences in the 1980s didn’t necessarily find some of the materials objectionable—although most didn’t—rather, most just didn’t feel the need to vigorously denounce it. Cultural sensitivity has dramatically changed, but it’s also that most people in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t fear that innocuous teen films of the era would or could damage America’s moral fiber.

Chronically popular-but-politically incorrect (and often sexually explicit) television shows such as ArcherShamelessFamily GuyIt’s Always Sunny in PhiladelphiaGirls, and Game of Thrones, to name just a few, demonstrate that American appetites for crudity are as strong as ever. Game of Thrones is an especially interesting example; it was widely praised and beloved by critics and fans alike, winning a Peabody, 59 Emmies, and eight Screen Actors Guild Awards. It was also criticized by some for depictions of rape, as well as gratuitous nudity and violence. Will the next generation wonder how such a (potentially) problematic and sexist show could have been so popular among both women and men?

It would be a difficult task to find an American over the age of 13 who has not seen some of this questionable content; the fact that acting like the characters in these shows is not an epidemic problem in our country bears out the theory that viewers are able to enjoy crude comedies or dramas without absorbing some polluting message that will alter their behavior or morals. By the same token, introducing grade schoolers to age-appropriate gender identity issues isn’t likely to cause harm. As long as the debate remains unanchored in scientific evidence of demonstrable harm, the cycle will continue.

A longer version of this piece appeared on my CFI website blog. 



May 152022

The new issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine features my investigation into the amazing crop circle that appeared near Stonehenge in 1996. It’s unique in its complexity and that it’s said to have been created in under an hour during daytime. I offer a different explanation… If you’re not a subscriber you can sign up here! 


Apr 152022

In case you missed our recent Squaring the Strange, we talk about people who think they can talk to animals. Or people who think their animal can talk to them — psychically, of course. Yes, it’s Pet Psychics and Psychic Pets time… Listen HERE!


Apr 122022

A few years ago I investigated and solved a mystery that stumped both conspiracy theorists (not hard to do) and a noted science educator (more difficult). Why did eyewitness video of a nightclub shooting contradict eyewitness accounts?


On November 7, 2018, a shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, California, by former Marine Ian David Long left nearly a dozen people dead, including the shooter. 

One victim, Sgt. Ron Helus, it was revealed recently, was killed not by Long but instead “friendly fire” from another police officer’s gun in the chaos. Dozens more were injured, mostly while escaping the club.

It was the latest horrific mass shooting, and Dann Broadbent, a science communicator, writer, and cohost of A Science Enthusiast podcast, examined it on his website. Broadbent wrote, “It was the 307th mass shooting this year (today is the 312th day of this year, too). This is our new normal. We consider ourselves to be better than the rest of the world, yet we have more gun violence per capita than any other developed country in the world.”

There are a few things we could unpack in this comment. In a future article I’ll examine the seeming epidemic of mass shootings, but in a previous column I wrote about concerns that Americans are numb, that mass shootings are becoming so routine and “the new normal” that citizens have lost their ability to be outraged.

What caught my eye was this comment: “I watched videos of the shooting last night. I heard the gunshots. But I didn’t hear people screaming, because we as a society now know that in an active shooter situation, you don’t scream because that draws extra attention to you. You get down, and look for ways to get out as quickly as possible.”

That seemed like a strange—and improbable—aspect of the attacks. No one screamed as a self-described “insane” maniac shot people in the nightclub? Everyone was silent (well, as silent as a country music nightclub would be) and careful not to yell or make a noise lest he or she draw attention?

After the attack had begun, of course, the circumstances would change. Potential victims hiding and staying silent in the presence of enemies with weapons is nothing new; it’s been a defensive tactic for millennia and was described in accounts of the Columbine school shootings in 1999. But perhaps in today’s world where shootings seem common, people in the Borderline Bar really did have the savvy and self-control to keep silent during the attack.

I didn’t follow the news coverage that closely, but I saw and read many interviews with survivors, none of whom mentioned an eerie silence from the killer’s potential victims.

Instead they described chaos: people yelling, screaming, and shouting. One victim, Bryce Colvard, described his friends shouting at him to get down; another student, Teylor Whittler, said that during the shooting “Everyone just yelled, ‘Run, he’s coming!’” and so on. Multiple news reports described victims screaming and yelling.

It got me wondering why someone would think or assume that the club’s victims were silent during such a terrifying scene. Where did that odd bit of misinformation come from? Broadbent referenced his source: the video he watched of the shooting in which “I didn’t hear people screaming …You can watch one of the videos yourself, but I must warn you that it’s extremely disturbing.”

Tale of the Tape

I watched the one-minute video he linked to, posted (and presumably taken) by Dallas Knapp on Instagram, from inside the club. Loud gunfire can be clearly heard, as can breaking glass and some indistinct sounds.

The video is dark and unclear; at first glance I had initially thought it was taken outside the club. It shows a chaotic scene and a dark, empty dance floor. A man is seen in the background, but it’s not clear if it’s the shooter, a victim, or a police officer. The cameraman turns and runs, exiting the building moments later.

Chicago’s ABC 7 News described the video: “The video shows what appears to be a semi-empty dance floor as a man dressed in dark clothing is behind a counter-like wall and shooting. About 10 gunshots are heard in the video. The man taking the video runs out of the venue and yells, ‘Guys, run, he’s coming out this door!’ Several people are heard screaming in the distance.”

It’s not just Broadbent of A Science Enthusiast who remarked on the video and noted there was something odd about it. In fact, myriad conspiracy theorists watched the same video and suggested that the shooting was a hoax, a “false flag” operation. A sampling of these opinions can be found in the responses to the video linked to within a CNN report:

  • “I don’t see anyone except one man not running but casually behind in the next room and the camera man. There would be people running all over the place and people on the ground.”
  • “You’re telling me a club with hundreds of people and an active shooter was quiet enough for the microphone to CLEARLY pick up the sounds of glass breaking and not be drowned out by the sounds of panic?”
  • “Either THAT VIDEO was staged independently of the actual incident where people may have truly been injured or it’s ALL bullshit.”
  • “WTF did I just watch? A video of an empty bar and then audio of gunshots. What happened to the 100s of people who were supposedly partying and line dancing? Where was all the mayhem that ensued afterwards? What, no one screaming? No one diving for cover on the floor. No stampede for the doorways and no one throwing chairs through windows? Oh my how horrific this video is indeed. It seems to contradict the eyewitness accounts. I’m calling BS.”

The last conspiracy poster’s comment reflects Broadbent’s observation: “What, no one screaming? … It seems to contradict the eyewitness accounts.” It’s a fair and accurate statement, so what can we make of it?

The Video versus the Victims: What’s Going On?

We can examine this through the lens of critical thinking, science, and skepticism. On one hand we have dozens of eyewitnesses who described the horror they saw and heard, including shouting and screaming; on the other hand, we have a short, ambiguous video clip that, superficially, seems to contradict them.

In fact there’s no contradiction: Eyewitnesses, such as Holden Harrah interviewed on the Today Show, stated that Long appeared at the door and immediately began shooting people. News reports state that the attacker fired at least sixty rounds; of those, about nine or ten can be heard in the video. Thus, we are seeing about one-sixth of the number of shots fired, with the balance coming before and/or after the video was recorded.

The dance floor is largely (or entirely) empty when the video was recorded because by that point the shooting had been going on for some time; it only takes a few seconds to clear a small dance floor. The room is very dark, and no victims can be seen; if there are any, they’re hiding behind tables or are in other rooms or are already outside. It’s true that in that video clip there’s no loud screaming, since the place is mostly empty at that point; few if any of the fifty or so patrons originally in the main room were left. There were reportedly about 200 people on the premises, including cooks, staff, people in other rooms, etc., most of whom fled in other directions and never directly encountered the shooter; the video depicts Knapp moving from the dance floor to the exit in seconds.

No music can be heard in the clip either—not because no music was being played that night at the nightclub but because the music, like the screaming, ceased soon after the shooting began. There’s nothing unusual or suspicious about it. We would not expect to hear people screaming in that room for the same reason we would not expect to see a full dance floor.

It’s like watching video taken by a driver after a car accident and finding it curious or suspicious that the footage doesn’t show the entire event before the cars collided. Why would it? Just because we don’t see some specific aspect of an event in a short video clip of that event doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

Conspiracy theorists find it suspicious that more videos of the shooting have not been made public. It seems likely that most of the victims that night were too busy running or hiding to pull out their cell phones and record the events; that one person did isn’t particularly surprising.

There are likely additional videos from police body cameras and security systems that have been reviewed by police but may not be made public. Since the suspect is dead, there will be no criminal trial and no necessary reason to release them.

In fact just recently, after a protracted legal battle by journalists at The Hartford Courantpolice released documentation about Adam Lanza, the shooter in the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre—six years after the conspiracy-laden event.

Authorities are not legally obligated to release any and all information about a crime simply to satisfy the morbidly curious and conspiracy theorists. (And, of course, such videos will not satisfy the conspiracy minded: “Yeah, so if this is real, why wasn’t this video released right away? FAKE!!!”)

Anyone can make mistaken assumptions; we all do it. It’s not a question of believing the victims or believing the video; we can do both if we examine the evidence closely—and we must be careful not to create contradictions where none exist, because those are the building blocks of conspiracies.


A longer version of this piece appeared on my CFI blog; you can find it here. 




Apr 082022

One of the favorite techniques of mystery mongers when confronted by skeptics or good evidence—or just plain common sense—is to reply “But isn’t it possible?” This is a standard ploy on countless paranormal-themed television shows, including (and especially) those dealing with ancient aliens.

This is often said with some degree of smug satisfaction, as if some universal truth had been laid down and the critic should just concede defeat and move along. Sure, maybe there’s no evidence whatsoever for Claim X—but how arrogant it would be to confidently and omnisciently rule it out! When I’m confronted with this fallacy, as I often am, I explain that there’s some (often unintentional) confusion between possibleplausible, and probable. This is a point that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention in critical thinking and skeptical circles, and I thought it would be worth exploring.

To scientists, statisticians, and actuaries the distinctions between what is possible, plausible, and probable are important, especially in the context of threats and dangers. Because these distinctions are rarely made (and in fact are routinely conflated) by the media, understanding how risk is measured is an important part of critical thinking and media literacy.

• Possible is of course the lowest bar, and from a scientific view anything is possible. It’s possible that a huge asteroid might come out of nowhere next month and kill all life on the planet. It’s possible that as you’re reading these words a child is being born in Pakistan who can fly like Superman and breathe underwater. It’s possible that a close friend of yours will be mugged by a left-handed serial killer named Wilbur. Science does not operate on certainties, and strictly speaking, anything is possible. As such, it’s essentially meaningless. Defense attorneys and conspiracy theorists love to use this “retreat to the possible” logical fallacy despite significant evidence to the contrary: “Yes, my client was seen and videotaped robbing this store, and sure, his fingerprints were found at the scene—but isn’t it possible that he has an evil twin that no one knew about who did this crime, while my client was busy volunteering at the homeless shelter across town?”

• Plausible is a more subjective measure; what’s plausible, or believable, depends on who you ask, what their knowledge base is, the context, and other factors. Often a claim that is plausible to a layperson is implausible to an expert; for example, a religious group’s claim of reducing a city’s violent crime through prayer will likely seem implausible to a police chief, who would use other methods. Or a president’s claim that building a border wall will stop illegal immigration would be considered implausible by experts on national security. What’s plausible also depends on what sort of information a person has access to—which is why it’s vital to have accurate information about the world upon which to reach a conclusion.

• Probable is the most valid, important, and science-based criterion. Unlike the meaninglessness of stating what is possible, and the vagaries associated with plausibility, probability has recourse to hard data and statistics. Experts may have honest disagreements about data interpretation, but we have reasonably good data on baselines for countless metrics and demographics—from the causes of car accidents to cancer incidence to the numbers of homicides. Statisticians and actuaries can tell you what your overall likelihood is of anything from being a crime victim to getting cancer (based on your genetics, diet, and lifestyle choices). It’s not precise or guaranteed, and there are outliers—some hamburger-loving chain smokers live to be 100, and some diligent vegan exercisers drop dead at 30—but typically the data conforms to a normal, bell-curve distribution. This is the power of data over anecdotes.

Yet we do not see many accurate discussions on probability in news stories designed to gather clicks as they ride currents of fear or outrage. Getting into the habit of looking for data on probabilities—and noticing when it is conspicuously absent from an article or discussion—is a valuable way to cut through misleading narratives and claims. Doing so will not just raise your level of media literacy, it will likely also decrease your anxiety—if you, like many, find yourself overwhelmed at times by the flood of panic-inducing stories served up as news and social media commentary.

Fearmongers routinely inflate dangers in an attempt at social control. If you can exaggerate small, remote dangers into prominent and visceral ones, you can scare the public and create division. This is often done by activists or candidates with a social or political agenda in mind, but the media also regularly subjects the public to alarmist news and studies, some more fact-based than others. The same applies to mystery mongers forced to concede the paucity of evidence for their claims. As always, skepticism is an important tool in critical thinking, so the next time you hear the lame rhetorical ploy “Isn’t it possible?” just reply, “Of course; anything is possible. You’re asking the wrong question.”


A longer version of this piece appeared on my CFI blog; you can find it here.