In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: This week, Ben and Celestia dig into what makes bad documentaries bad. You can listen HERE.
The film The Shape of Water received thirteen Oscar nominations and won four (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Production Design, and Best Original Score). The film follows the romance between a custodian at a secret government laboratory and a captured human-like amphibian creature. The creature's origins are not clear; he (the gender is eventually revealed in an unusually mainstream passing reference to bestiality) may be a demigod, or a member of some unknown species. Though not specifically described as a merman--the story was inspired by Creature from the Black Lagoon--the creature nonetheless shares many features of classical mermen. Merfolk are the marine version of half-human, half-animal legends that have captured human imagination for ages. Greek mythology contains stories of the god Triton, the merman messenger of the sea, and several modern religions worship mermaid goddesses to this day. Though not as well known as their comely female counterparts, there are of course mermen--and they have a fierce reputation for summoning storms, sinking ships, and drowning sailors. One especially feared group, the Blue Men of the Minch, are said to dwell in the Outer Hebrides off the coast of Scotland. They look like ordinary men (from the waist up anyway) with the exception of their blue-tinted skin and grey beards. Local lore claims that before laying siege to a ship the Blue Men often challenge its captain to a rhyming contest; if the captain is quick enough of wit and agile enough of tongue he can best the Blue Men and save his sailors from a watery grave. You can read the rest at my CFI blog 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!
With the recent release of the third installment of the Fifty Shades of Grey series there has been considerable consternation about what effect the film (and its predecessors) will have on the public. A Christian Science Monitor story by Gloria Goodale explained "How ‘Fifty Shades of Grey' Is Contributing to Shift in Norms on Sexuality," for example, and a hilariously scathing review of the new film appeared on Pajiba.com and went viral, headlined "'50 Shades Freed' Is an Ignorant, Poisonous Anti-Feminist Hate Anthem." Dozens of other blogs and articles make similar claims, though they do not seem to have dampened its audience's ardor: the new film has brought in nearly $270 million to date. The missing logical link in these stories is in what in argumentation is called a warrant. It's a principle or chain of reasoning connecting a premise to a conclusion. For example in the statement "I see the freeway is packed, so we're probably going to miss our flight," the warrant is that traffic congestion will delay passengers getting to the airport on time. This may or may not be true--for example the traffic may clear up shortly, or the flight might also be delayed--but the warrant offers a reason or logical rationale linking a claim to its conclusion. Often the warrant is implied, such as "Four out of five doctors use our brand of pain reliever." The warrant is that most doctors would use one brand over another because of its quality or efficacy. Again, this may or may not be true; the doctors might use one the brand because it's cheaper than its competitors (or free from the pharmaceutical company) though no more effective. Understanding warrants is crucial to determining whether an argument or claim is logically sound or reasonable. People often cloak their disagreement or displeasure over a piece of work (a film, book, cartoon, etc.) with an assertion that it is not merely personally distasteful or offensive but in fact dangerous to society. Most people understand that merely saying "I don't like this film" is, quite rightly, likely to be met with a response along the lines of, "Thanks for expressing your opinion." In order to have that opinion carry more weight and garner public support, the critic often goes a step further to assert that the object of their scorn is a threat to public health or morals. It is a form of fearmongering, a technique used by manipulators for millennia. Sometimes it's a president stoking fears of Muslim or immigrant terrorists; other times it's a conservative media watchdog group complaining that, for example, Teen Vogue is encouraging America's teens to engage in anal sex. And so on. This pearl-clutching is nothing new, of course. Parents have been concerned about the harmful effects of pastimes and entertainment for centuries. Blaming entertainment media is an old tradition-in fact when Jack the Ripper was active in 1880s London, violence in the play The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was blamed for inspiring the serial murders. And the family game Twister was famously derided as "sex in a box" by a competitor who diligently (if self-interestedly) warned the public about this immoral game. This is, however, where a line becomes crossed because the critic is then in the position of making a factual claim and should offer evidence for that claim. Saying you don't like chocolate ice cream (or rap music, pornography, or anything else) merely expresses an inviolable, unfalsifiable personal preference which cannot be challenged based on any evidence: If you don't like it, you don't like it. End of story. For more 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, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
I will be appearing on a new 10-part series on Discovery’s Science Channel, on a show titled “Strange Evidence.” It examines bizarre and seemingly inexplicable photographs and videos. (I’m one of the guests who takes the “un” out of “unexplained.”) Will I be on the new episode, or did I end up on the cutting room floor? Find out every Tuesday night at 7 PT / 10ET! Find out 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!
My new CFI blog on the return of Pennywise the evil clown! Horror fans around the world have waited for years to see one of the most terrifying clowns in cinematic history, and finally Pennywise returns later this week in the new version of Stephen King's It. As a post on Uproxx noted, "Who needs nightmares when you can be traumatized by creepy-ass clowns in person? The Alamo Drafthouse is celebrating the arrival of the 2017 cinematic take on Stephen King's It with a clown-only screening of the movie. The Austin location of the theater chain will cater to a clown-specific audience on September 9th with a special screening of It. All attendees are expected to be done up like a clown (I can count the Captain Spauldings already) and can also visit ‘an IT pre-party where we will have face-painters available for clown ‘touch-ups,' a photo booth, raffles for prizes, and other terrifying merriment.'" You can read the rest HERE.
My new blog about Amy Schumer blaming herself for a shooting at her film "Trainwreck." By applying skepticism to news media claims we can see that she's blaming herself needlessly, and that there's no clear connection between the content of a film and violence that occurs there... You can read it HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
My new CFI blog on James Donovan, the hero in the new Spielberg film "Bridge of Spies," is HERE. The film is largely about his integrity in demanding due process, yet Americans often are happy to ignore due process in favor of social justice outrage... You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
On October 30, Destination America aired a 2-hour live special about a group of ghost hunters trying to exorcise a house; my article on it is HERE.
From the Radford Files archives: The film Creation, starring Paul Bettany as Charles Darwin, tells the story of Darwin's revolutionary book On the Origin of Species. Darwin, steeped in the ways of science, was also a skeptic who demanded good evidence for extraordinary claims. Darwin’s correspondence to friends, family, and colleagues reveals he held very skeptical views about psychics, the paranormal, and alternative medicine. For example, in a September 4, 1850, letter to his second cousin Rev. William Darwin Fox, Darwin was scathingly dismissive of psychic powers (clairvoyance) and homeopathy: “You speak about Homeopathy; which is a subject which makes me more wrath, even than does Clairvoyance: clairvoyance so transcends belief, that one’s ordinary faculties are put out of question, but in Homeopathy common sense & common observation come into play, and both these must go to the Dogs, if the infinetesimal doses have any effect whatever.” (Here Darwin is referring to the illogical homeopathic premise that tiny amounts of a drug are more effective than larger doses.) Darwin then notes that in order for homeopathy to be scientifically tested, it would need to be studied against a control group: “How true is a remark I saw the other day...in respect to evidence of curative processes, viz that no one knows in disease what is the simple result of nothing being done, as a standard with which to compare Homeopathy & all other such things. It is a sad flaw, I cannot but think in my beloved Dr. Gully, that he believes in everything...” A year earlier, in a letter dated March 19, Darwin had written of the gullibility of physician James Manby Gully, who had treated Darwin’s father: “Dr. Gully was a spiritualist [a member of a group that regularly communicated with the dead] & believer in clairvoyance [also known as ESP or mental telepathy]. He bothered my father for some time to have a consultation with a clairvoyant, who was staying at Malvern, and was reputed to be able to see the insides of people & discover the real nature of their ailments.” To pacify his physician friend, Darwin’s father finally agreed to meet with the self-proclaimed psychic who had so impressed Dr. Gully. But, he insisted, he wanted to test the psychic’s power for himself. “Accordingly, in going to the interview he put a banknote in a sealed envelope. After being introduced to the lady he said \’I have heard a great deal of your powers of reading concealed writings & I should like to have evidence myself: now in this envelope there is a banknote—if you will read the number I shall be happy to present it to you.’” It was a very simple and fair test: if the psychic could see through a patient’s clothing and flesh to diagnose diseases, surely she could see through a simple, paper-thin envelope and determine the denomination of a bank note. The psychic refused, saying she was insulted at being asked to prove her amazing abilities: “The clairvoyante answered scornfully ‘I have a maid-servant at home who can do that.’” She did, however, go on to (incorrectly) claim that Darwin's father had horrible internal diseases—perhaps her spite at the skeptic clouded her psychic abilities. Darwin’s letters provide a fascinating historical context to paranormal claims. 160 years after Darwin and his father debunked homeopathy and fraudulent psychics, such unproven are still very much with us. Homeopathic remedies can be found on the shelves of most chain drug stores, and many people today claim to diagnose and treat diseases using psychic powers; they no longer call themselves clairvoyants but instead “medical intuitives.” You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
From the Radford Files archives: 2012 Disaster Film Contains Pro-Science Themes The recent big-budget Hollywood blockbuster disaster film 2012, directed by Roland Emmerich, depicts a global catastrophe and flood. John Cusack stars as a divorced Los Angeles writer who wants to reunite with his family, and ends up going (almost literally) to the ends of the earth to save them. At the same time in Washington D.C., a geologist discovers that the earth’s unsettled tectonic plates will cause havoc. Soon the whole world is enveloped in chaos and destruction. Though 2012 is not a great film, it does have some interesting pro-science aspects that skeptics should appreciate. While John Cusack is the lead star, the hero of the film is really a black scientist, Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Helmsley is the president’s chief science advisor, and it is he who first discovers the impending danger. The film somewhat realistically portrays the difficulties of scientific uncertainty—how sure do you have to be to sound the alarm? This is not an academic question, and arises in discussions of scientific prediction on a wide range of topics ranging from asteroid impacts to global warming. Not only is the scientist the hero, he is also the film’s major moral compass. There are no evil, white lab-coated scientists in 2012, there are only scientists doing their best to save humanity (and a few nerds thrown in for good measure). 2012 is a completely humanistic disaster film; the catastrophes are not the work of angry gods, nor magic spells, but nature itself. The film shows prayer failing miserably to stop the destruction (even the Pope in the Vatican gets smacked away; Emmerich told me he originally wanted to show Mecca being destroyed, but didn’t want to risk offending Muslims). In the end it is science that saves the day. These are wonderful pro-science depictions that I’d hope to see in more films; it’s a shame to see them buried in a well-meaning but bloated disaster film like 2012. This piece originally appeared in the Briefs Briefs column in the September 2009 Skeptical Briefs newsletter. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.