Jan 282021
 

 I wrote an article investigating the infamous “Women-Only Wonder Woman” screenings in 2017. It was a fascinating hoax that exploited social media and social justice, reaping huge publicity and lawsuits–and an apology from the theater.

 

The long-delayed, highly-anticipated sequel to the 2017 film Wonder Woman finally hit screens last month. Wonder Woman 1984 opened to decidedly mixed reviews, but it would be hard to live up to its predecessor. The original film was a commercial and critical blockbuster hit, earning over $820 million to date and a 93% Certified Fresh rating on the film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. There were many reasons the film did well, including strong performance by Gal Gadot, a solid script, an empowering female-led cast and crew, good special effects, and so on.

Less attention has been paid to the savvy grassroots marketing of the film, which effectively harnessed social media and social justice outrage. A closer look at the situation through the lenses of media literacy and critical thinking reveal a fascinating—and fabricated—story.

The most effective advertising and marketing campaigns are those in which the audience willingly—even enthusiastically—engages with the brand. The vast majority of advertisements are ignored, many are outright mocked and some are vilified. American media consumers, having grown up in a world cluttered with commercial jingles and ads, are largely jaded and cynical.

Technology makes it easier than ever to skip over ads, and many people pay premiums for advertisement-free entertainment services. Spam filters are very efficient at diverting emailed advertisements, and phones are more adept than ever before at blocking advertisements routed by telephone (an estimated 4 to 5 billion robocalls are made each month to people in the United States, with only a tiny percentage of them—annoying as they are—reaching consumers).

But now and then advertisers strike gold, finding ways to make audiences do their work for them, sharing their memorable message on social media in ways that only billions of marketing dollars possibly could. Superbowl halftime ads, for example, generate attention and interest weeks before the event, with news media playing their role in “reporting” on the funny/shocking/cute/edgy ads that “everyone will be talking about around the office watercooler” the next day. Rarely are so many TV viewers so eager to watch television commercials.

The Superbowl only comes once a year, however, and clever marketers have found other ways to use the news media as their platform, seamlessly blending social commentary and advertising. One of the best known examples is the Dove “Real Beauty” campaign, which garnered girl-power cred—and some inevitable backlash from feminists—by emphasizing the beauty in “ordinary women.” Its (real or perceived) newsworthiness kept it in the public eye for years.

The wildly popular and much-discussed campaign was produced by Dove/Unilever, a multi-billion dollar brand. Smaller, independent companies who can’t afford such a slick campaign need to be resourceful and find cheap but effective ways to distinguish themselves from competitors; often this means guerrilla and grassroots marketing using stunts or gimmicks to gain news media attention.

Making your brand legitimately newsworthy isn’t easy, but doing so is part of many marketing strategies. Every minute of being mentioned in “news”reports—assuming the coverage is positive or at least neutral, of course—is worth far more than a comparable minute of straight-up traditional advertising or infomercials. Many people skip over, tune out, and ignore commercials, but when a company or brand is mentioned as part of the news, it garners much more active attention.

Sometimes this technique backfires, as happened in 2007 when mysterious devices promoting the Turner Cartoon Network’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force show were mistaken for bombs and caused terrorism scares in Boston and other cities. But usually such campaigns make a small blip and then quickly fade away.

One way to give your advertising campaign longevity is to piggyback it onto a topic that people already care about—and, ideally, consider themselves activists for, such as environmentalism or social justice—and let them do your work for you. Instead of creating a demand and then selling your product to fill that demand, demonstrate how your brand aligns with their pre-existing worldview and concerns, and let the social media public promote you.

Which brings us to the Alamo Draft House, a small theater chain founded in Austin, Texas, in 1997. Part of the Alamo’s appeal (and its fame) is its quirky cinemaphile focus. Patrons are not merely discouraged from talking or texting during screenings but have been removed from the theater for doing so! Toddlers are restricted to certain showings, and audience members are often encouraged to participate by dressing up for themed occasions. The chain has 40 theaters across the country, half of them in Texas.

The ‘Clowns Only’ It Screenings

In 2017, and again in 2019, the Alamo held “clowns only” screenings of the horror movie It (parts 1 and 2, respectively) featuring Pennywise the clown. Non-clowns (or at least those not dressed as clowns) were (supposedly) barred from the screenings.

As an Uproxx article 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.’” A writer for GQ attended the 2019 event and noted that clown attire (such as red noses and funny hats) was available at the door for people who showed up for the screenings without the “required” clown costume.

Headlines universally described the Alamo’s “clowns only” screening—but in fact no “clowns only” policy was enforced; for example the September 9, 2017 “clown-only” screening at the Alamo merely requested that “all attendees should arrive dressed as a clown.” It was just a silly publicity stunt that got the desired national media attention. Few questioned the truth of the advertising claim or the news media’s reporting of it; after all, it’s not as if any non-clowns were upset at being excluded. A few years earlier, however, it had been an entirely different situation.

The ‘Women Only’ Wonder Woman Screenings

When it came to scaring up controversy, Pennywise had nothing on Wonder Woman. As successful as the “clowns only” screening was, the Alamo had been more successful at courting publicity and headlines in 2017 by advertising an all-female screening of Wonder Woman; not only would female patrons be the only ones be admitted according to advertising, but “Everyone working at this screening—venue staff, projectionist, and culinary team—will be female.”

Given the Alamo’s well-known strict intolerance regarding violating theater etiquette and policies, the idea that it would hold female-only screenings sounded perfectly plausible. Most people took it seriously, and misunderstood what was going on. Dozens of journalists jumped on the bandwagon, smelling a great story.

When the screenings were announced, they were greeted with widespread approval. The first screening sold out in hours, and additional screenings were slated. The stunt worked perfectly, generating controversy and sympathetic news headlines while scoring female empowerment points and endearing the theater chain to legions of fans. A handful of people complained, sparking a predictable backlash of outrage that garnered the theater millions of dollars in further free publicity.

As it turned out, however, the Alamo was joking; paying male patrons were not refused entry to any “all-female” Wonder Woman screenings. It was a clever response by Alamo, anticipating and exploiting an equally predictable social media “outrage.”

The Alamo expertly manipulated social justice activists by creating a marketing narrative in which they were the heroes, bravely battling censorship and standing up for women’s safe spaces, “girl power,” and feminism. Activists and journalists didn’t get the joke, and the Alamo laughed all the way to the bank (at least at first). In their rush to generate clickbait headlines about a company providing women refuge from our society’s rampant misogyny the news media got it wrong—not once but twice. Not only did the news and social media misunderstand whether the “women only” screenings had actually occurred, but they also misunderstood who was complaining about it and why.

Was There a Women-Only Wonder Woman Screening?

As with the “clowns only” It screenings—which encouraged clowns but did not prohibit non-clowns from attending—the “women only” Wonder Woman screening encouraged women (more specifically, “people who identify as women,” presumably signaling Alamo’s nonbinary inclusiveness) to attend but didn’t actually prohibit non-women from attending.

Not only were men not denied entry to Wonder Woman, but the stunt backfired when two complaints were made about the screenings. These complaints added fuel to the fire and amplified the narrative that imagined hordes of misogynists were throwing petulant tantrums about not being allowed to see that specific screening. The Alamo enjoyed a second wave of publicity, this one greater than the first.

Amid all the hand-waving, self-righteousness, and troll-baiting, a little detail was lost: the screenings were in fact illegal. Even though no enforced “women-only” Wonder Woman screenings took place, the Alamo’s advertisements that there would be violated the law. Austin equality codes prohibit any public accommodation (restaurants, movie theaters, bars, community centers, etc.) from limiting their services based on a variety of factors including race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on.

‘Angry Men’

Many news reports simply stated that “some men” were upset at the women-only screenings. Few, however, bothered to take a closer look at who, exactly, those “some men” were, and what specifically their complaints were. Journalists accepted the most obvious answer—and took at face value the seemingly self-evident assumption that tone-deaf misogynists were the ones making a fuss. Many journalists didn’t bother to survey the social media responses beyond simply offering screen captures of various tweets, a process guaranteed to highlight the most extreme voices and thereby exaggerate the controversy (New York Times writer Jim Rutenberg hyperbolically referred to the incident as “causing an international uproar” in his June 5, 2017, article; the Times did not respond to a request for clarification).

 

To be sure, there were plenty of tweets to choose from, and in a social media world where even innocuous cat videos can generate controversy—never mind “debates” about the color of a dress or which way toilet paper should correctly unspool—it wasn’t hard to sift out some obnoxious responses.

The mayor of Austin, for example, received a bizarre, ranting email from a Richard A. Ameduri who wrote in part, “I hope every man will boycott Austin and do what he can to diminish Austin and to cause damage to the city’s image. The theater that pandered to the sexism typical of women will, I hope, regret its decision.” The mayor gamely counter-trolled: “I am writing to alert you that your email account has been hacked by an unfortunate and unusually hostile individual. Please remedy your account’s security right away, lest this person’s uninformed and sexist rantings give you a bad name. After all, we men have to look out for each other! . . . You and I are serious men of substance with little time for the delicate sensitivities displayed by the pitiful creature who maligned your good name and sterling character by writing that abysmal email. I trust the news that your email account has been hacked does not cause you undue alarm and wish you well in securing your account.”

The rant was widely and rightly mocked, and, with Ameduri quickly and spectacularly shot down in flames, another man soon became the new face of the seemingly misogynistic anti-Wonder Woman crusade. Unlike the noisy, mostly-anonymous online trolls and Ameduri, he took it to a whole new level and actually filed a formal complaint with the city of Austin. The Alamo’s many supporters on social media greeted the news with a mix of outrage and mockery.

Who was this angry incel, this misogynist who couldn’t stand to let women have their own screening? It was a law professor in Albany, New York, named Stephen Clark. As Salon noted, Clark “explained that the promotion of the screenings didn’t sit well with him. ‘I’m a specialist in anti-discrimination law, so I was fairly certain that this was not lawful,’ he told MyStatesman. ‘If they were trying to do a gay-only Brokeback Mountain, I would feel the same way.’” (Salon writer Alessandra Maldonado, like the Alamo, denigrated Clark’s defense of anti-discrimination laws as “whining.”)

Peter Holley profiled the chief complainant for The Washington Post: “Stephen Clark almost let it slide. The theater was 2,000 miles away in Austin, and there was no chance he was going to show up there to see a movie anyway. As a gay man who considers himself sensitive to historically disadvantaged groups, there was even a part of him that saw the value of a celebratory, women-only screening of Wonder Woman. But Clark… changed his mind when he looked up Alamo Drafthouse’s Facebook page and began reading the heated exchanges between the theater’s management and the frustrated men calling the venue’s women-only events ‘discriminatory.’”

The Alamo’s snarky tone on social media in response to (what turned out to be legitimate) complaints was another calculated effort to endear itself to audiences. Alamo fueled the flames of controversy by characterizing the complaints as completely baseless, misogynistic, and malicious. Morgan Hendrix, Alamo creative manager, said that the fact that the event “has incurred the wrath of trolls only serves to deepen our belief that we’re doing something right.” Clark found that attitude “brazen” and dismissive: “I understand the reason for creating a women-only event, but the equality principle is fundamental…. There are men in Austin who would like to celebrate women’s empowerment. There are women in Austin who would like to go to this event with their gay best friend, and they can’t under this rule.”

The Washington Post added, “He alleged that the Drafthouse’s women-only event—as it was described in the theater’s advertising—discriminated against male customers based on their gender. Citing the theater’s promise to staff only women at the events, Clark also alleged that the Drafthouse was illegally engaging in employment discrimination. ‘It’s the principle of the thing,’ he told the Post, ‘I’m a gay man, and I’ve studied and taught gay rights for years. Our gay bars have long said that you do not exclude people because they’re gay or straight or transgender—you just can’t do that for any reason . . . . We have to deal with the bachelorette parties that come to the gay bar,’ he added. ‘They’re terribly disruptive, but if you forbid women from coming to a gay bar, you’re starting down a slippery slope. It’s discrimination.’”

It was of course too late for the Alamo to publicly admit that the women-only screenings were a prank, something they never really planned to enforce; they had legions of fans defending them and encouraging them on social media. It’s not clear when they realized that their actions may have been illegal, but at any rate the theater chain decided to double down. While (justifiably) flipping the bird at the (seeming) hordes of cranky basement-dwelling misogynist manbabies online who apparently couldn’t bear women having their own screenings, they also did the same to advocates who had no problem with women—but had a very real problem with gender discrimination. That would be their undoing.

Stacy Hawkins, an associate professor of law at Rutgers University who specializes in employment law, civil rights and diversity, agreed with Clark, explaining to The Washington Post that “As far as public accommodations are concerned, I can tell you in no uncertain terms that the reason this case was filed under the Austin city code is that it prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.” Hawkins noted that “the entire controversy could have been avoided with a simple tweak in the theater’s advertising. ‘Just eliminate ‘no men welcome’ language,’ she said. ‘You try to make sure you demonstrate this is an event for and about women and, most likely, men aren’t going to show up.’” It’s classic human behavior: Tell people they can’t do something, and suddenly they want to do it—just to prove a point, not because they necessarily care a whit about it. The Alamo understood this bit of psychology and deftly used it to its advantage.

A second complaint, from an Austin resident named Mingfey Fan, also argued that “the very act of advertising violated the Code . . . the discriminatory screening should not be allowed.” Fan withdrew the complaint after the Alamo addressed his complaint with respect instead of mockery, admitted it had in fact violated the law, and sent him a DVD of the film.

Mea Culpa

Once lawyers got involved, after profits had been made and publicity garnered, the Alamo decided to come clean. First it admitted that the women-only Wonder Woman screenings were a prank, something they had led people to believe they would do, but never actually did, and had in fact never planned to do: As the Dallas News reported, “The chain’s director of real estate and development, Missy Reynolds, said . . . that the theaters would not, in fact, have turned away any men who bought tickets to the screening.”

In a letter to the city, the Alamo apologized for the screenings and admitted they had made mistakes, violating Austin’s anti-discrimination laws. It read in part, “Respondent did not realize that advertising a ‘women’s-only’ screening was a violation of discrimination laws. . . . Respondent has a very strict non-discrimination policy in place, but this policy did NOT include a specific prohibition against advertising.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Alamo agreed to revise its anti-discrimination policy to comply with local ordinances, and the matter was done. When the dust had settled (and after outrage profits were reaped), with hindsight it’s clear that the imagined hordes of angry men pounding on the Alamo theater’s doors demanding to be let in to see Wonder Woman never existed except as virtual boogeymen in the skewed online world, where public perception often veers markedly from reality. The myth wasn’t created by accident or coincidence, but instead was a golem cobbled together from scraps of advertising gimmickry, social narrative, clickbait outrage, and superficial journalism.

The idea of the “clowns only” It screenings—like that of the “women only” Wonder Woman screenings—was a misleading media myth that the Alamo had no reason to correct and every incentive to promote. When a priceless publicity stunt works, you stick with it. While some may feel that the Alamo profiting from social justice was crass, others marvel at the genius of its marketing stunts. 

Social Justice-Driven Box Office

Other films in recent years have also generated free publicity (and millions of dollars) by casting themselves as somehow oppressed, or outsiders battling the status quo. Perhaps the best known example is the 2014 film The Interview, which sparked controversy when its studio, Sony Pictures, was warned not to release it—presumably at the behest of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who in the film is not only mocked but also the target of an assassination plot. Apparently giving in to censorious threats, Sony reportedly cancelled all plans to screen The Interview, on the premise that it was better that no one saw the film than anyone be injured or killed by a terrorist act at one of the screenings. This in turn led to an outpouring of public support, with moviegoers proudly announcing their determination to see the film (sometimes repeatedly), in an explicit effort to spite Kim Jong Un. Sony came under fire for caving in to terrorist threats by scuttling the film. 

However, as in the Alamo screenings, Sony’s critics were acting on—and reacting to—misinformation. As The New York Times noted, Sony never planned a total blackout of the film, as had been widely reported. They had left the choice of whether or not the screen the film to theater owners—who had chosen not to. (For more on this, see my January 7, 2015 article “Censorship and Free Speech: Did Sony Really Cancel The Interview?”)

The internet being what it is, just about any news story will inevitably bring out some contrarians and trolls. This is especially true for controversial topics such as gender, race, religion, gun control, and so on. Faux outrage, marketing stunts, and manufactroversies are nothing new, of course. But they can have real consequences when people don’t see through the deception. Tens of millions of Americans, for example, likely remember a fictional widespread misogynistic outrage at an independent theater that dared to hold Wonder Woman screenings just for women.

As is always the case, the initial outrage got widespread publicity while the second half of the story—including the fact that the Alamo admitted that its women-only Wonder Woman screening had been a hoax (and publicity stunt)—got very little attention. There are plenty of real-world, legitimate examples of widespread sexism, but the reaction to the “women only” Wonder Woman publicity stunt was not among them. Skepticism, critical thinking, and media literacy are the best defenses against being manipulated by the media.

 

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

 

Apr 122020
 

In February a headline widely shared on social media decried poor reviews of the new film Birds of Prey and blamed it on male film critics hating the film for real or perceived feminist messages (and/or skewed expectations; it’s not clear). The article, by Sergio Pereira, was headlined “Birds of Prey: Most of the Negative Reviews Are from Men.”

The idea that the film was getting bad reviews because hordes of trolls or misogynists hated it was certainly plausible, and widely discussed for example in the case of the all-female Ghostbusters reboot a few years ago. As a media literacy educator and a film buff, I was curious to read more, and when I saw it on a friend’s Facebook wall I duly did what the writer wanted me (and everyone else) to do: I clicked on the link.

I half expected the article to contradict its own headline (a frustratingly common occurrence, even in mainstream news media stories), but in this case Pereira’s text accurately reflected its headline: “Director Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), starring Margot Robbie as the Clown Princess of Crime, debuted to a Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. While the score has dropped as more reviews pour in, the most noticeable thing is that the bulk of the negative reviews come from male reviewers. Naturally, just because the film is a first for superhero movies—because it’s written by a woman, directed by a woman and starring a mostly all-female cast—doesn’t absolve it from criticism. It deserves to be judged for both its strengths and weaknesses like any other piece of art. What is concerning, though, is how less than 10% of the negative reviews are from women.” In the article and later on Twitter Pereira attributed the negative reviews to an alleged disparity between what male film reviewers expected from the film and what they actually saw, describing it as “literally… where a bunch of fools got upset about the movie they THOUGHT it was, instead of what it ACTUALLY was.”

I was reminded of the important skeptical dictum that before trying to explain why something is the case, be sure that it is the case; in other words question your assumptions. This is a common error on social media, in journalism, and of course in everyday life. We shouldn’t just believe what people tell us—especially online. To be fair, the website was CBR.com (formerly known as Comic Book Resources) and not, for example, BBC News or The New York Times. It’s pop culture news, but news nonetheless.

Curious to see what Pereira was describing, I clicked the link to the Rotten Tomatoes listing and immediately knew that something wasn’t right. The film had a rating of 80% Fresh rating—meaning that most of the reviews were positive. In fact according to MSNBC, “The film charmed critics [and is] the third-highest rating for any movie in the DCEU, just behind Wonder Woman and Shazam.” Birds of Prey may not have lived up to its expectations, but the film was doing fairly well, and hardly bombing—because of male film reviewers or for any other reason.

I know something about film reviewing; I’ve been a film reviewer since 1994, and attended dozens of film festivals, both as an attendee and a journalist. I’ve also written and directed two short films and taken screenwriting courses. One thing I’ve noticed is that for whatever reason most film critics are male (a fact I double checked, learning that the field is about 80% male). So, doing some very basic math in my head, I knew there was something very wrong with the headline—and not just the headline, but the entire premise of Pereira’s article.

Here’s a quick calculation: Say there are 100 reviewers. 80 of them are men; 20 are not. If half of each gender give it a positive review, that’s 40 positive reviews from men and 10 from women, for a total of 50% approval (or “Fresh”) rating. If half of men (40) and 100% of the women (20) gave it a positive review, that’s a 60% Fresh rating. If three-quarters of men (60) and 100% of the women (20) gave it a positive review, that’s an 80% Fresh rating.

Birds of Prey had an 80% Fresh rating. So even if every single female reviewer gave the film a positive review—which we know didn’t happen just from a glance at the reviews on RottenTomatoes—then that means that at least three out of four men gave it a positive review. Therefore it might statistically be true that “most of the negative reviews are from men,” but the exact opposite is also true: most of the positive reviews are from men, simply because there are more male reviewers. The article’s claim that “the bulk of the negative reviews come from male reviewers” is misleading at best and factually wrong at worst.

I also thought it strange that Pereira didn’t specify which male reviewers he was talking about. By “fools” did he mean professional film critics such as Richard Roeper and Richard Brody were overwhelmingly writing scathing reviews of the film? Or did he mean reviews from random male film fans? And if the latter, how did he determine the gender of the anonymous reviewers? It was possible that his statistic was correct, but readers would need much more information about where he got his numbers. Did he take the time to gather data, create a spreadsheet, and do some calculations? Did he skim the reviews for a minute and do a rough estimate? Did he just make it up?

I was wary of assuming the burden of proof regarding this claim. After all, Sergio Pereira was the one who claimed that most of the negative reviews were by men. The burden of proof is always on the person making the claim; it’s not up to me to show he’s wrong, but up to him to show he’s right. Presumably he got that number from somewhere—but where?

I contacted Pereira via Twitter and asked him how he arrived at the calculations. He did not reply, so I later contacted CBR directly, emailing the editors with a concise, polite note saying that the headline and articles seemed to be false, and asking them for clarification: “He offers no information at all about how he determined that, nor that less than 10% of the negative reviews are from women. The RottenTomatoes website doesn’t break reviewers down by gender (though named and photos offer a clue), so Pereira would have to go through one by one to verify each reviewer’s gender. It’s also not clear whether he’s referring to Top Reviewers or All Reviewers, which are of course different datasets. I spent about 20 minutes skimming the Birds of Prey reviews and didn’t see the large gender imbalance reported in your article (and didn’t have hours to spend verifying Pereira’s numbers, which I couldn’t do anyway without knowing what criterion he used). Any clarification about Pereira’s methodology would be appreciated, thank you.”  They also did not respond.

Since neither the writer nor the editors would respond, I resignedly took a stab at trying to figure out where Pereira got his numbers. I looked at the Top Critics and did a quick analysis. I found 41 of them whose reviews appeared at the time: 26 men and 15 women. As I suspected, men had indeed written the statistical majority of both the positive and negative reviews.

Reactions

On my friend’s Facebook page where I first saw the story being shared I posted a comment noting what seemed to be an error, and offering anyone an easy way to assess whether the headline was plausible: “A quick-and-dirty way to assess whether the headline is plausible is to note that 1) 80% of film critics are male, and that 2) Birds of Prey has a 80% Fresh rating, with 230 Fresh (positive) and 59 Rotten (negative). So just glancing at it, with 80% of reviewers male, how could the film possibly have such a high rating if most of the men gave it negative reviews?”

The reactions from women on the post were interesting—and gendered: one wrote, “did you read the actual article or just the headline? #wellactually,” and “haaaaard fucking eyeroll* oh look y’all. The dude who thinks he’s smarter than the author admits its maybe a little perhaps possible that women know what they’re talking about.”

The latter comment was puzzling, since Sergio Pereira is a man. It wasn’t a man questioning whether women knew what they were talking about; it was a man questioning whether another man’s harmful stereotypes about women highlighted in his online article were true. I was reminded of the quote attributed to Mark Twain: “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them they’ve been fooled.” Much of the reaction I got was critical of me for questioning the headline and the article. I got the odd impression that some thought I was somehow defending the supposed majority male film critics who didn’t like the film, which was absurd. I hadn’t (and haven’t) seen the film and have no opinion about it, and couldn’t care less whether most of the male critics liked or didn’t like the film. My interest is as a media literacy educator and someone who’s researched misleading statistics.

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.

The problem is when the person does occasionally 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?

If the reviews are attributable to sexism or misogyny due to feminist themes in the script—instead of, for example, lackluster acting, clunky dialogue, lack of star power, an unpopular title (the film was renamed during its release, a very unusual marketing move), or any number of other factors unrelated to its content—then presumably that same effect would be clear in other similar films.

Ironically, another article on CBR by Nicole Sobon published a day earlier—and linked to in Sergio Pereira’s piece—offers several reasons why Birds of Prey wasn’t doing as well at the box office, and misogyny was conspicuously not among them: “Despite its critical success, the film is struggling to take flight at the box office…. One of the biggest problems with Birds of Prey was its marketing. The trailers did a great job of reintroducing Robbie’s Quinn following 2017’s Suicide Squad, but they failed to highlight the actual Birds of Prey. Also working against it was the late review embargo. It’s widely believed that when a studio is confident in its product, it will hold critics screenings about two weeks before the film’s release, with reviews following shortly afterward to buoy audience anticipation and drive ticket sales. However, Birds of Prey reviews didn’t arrive until three days before the film’s release. And, while the marketing finally fully kicked into gear by that point, for the general audience, it might’ve been too late to care. Especially when Harley Quinn’s previous big-screen appearance was in a poorly received film.”

The Cinematic Gender Divide

A gender divide in positive versus negative reviews of ostensibly feminist films (however you may want to measure that, whether by the Bechdel Test or some other way—such as an all-female cast, or female writer/directors), is eminently provable. It’s not a subject that I’ve personally researched and quantified, but since Pereira didn’t reference any of this in his article, I did some research on it.

For example Salon did a piece on gender divisions in film criticism, though not necessarily finding that it was rooted in sexism or a reaction to feminist messages: “The recent Ghostbusters reboot, directed by Paul Feig, received significantly higher scores from female critics than their male counterparts. While 79.3 percent of women who reviewed the film gave it a positive review, just 70.8 percent of male critics agreed with them. That’s a difference of 8.5 percent… In total, 84 percent of the films surveyed received more positive reviews from female reviewers than from men. The movies that showed the greatest divide included A Walk to Remember, the Nicholas Sparks adaptation; Twilight, the 2008 vampire romance; P.S. I Love You, a melodrama about a woman (Hilary Swank) grieving the loss of her partner; Divergent, the teen dystopia; and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood… Men tended to dislike Young Adult literary adaptations and most films marketed to teenage girls. Pitch Perfect, which was liked by 93.8 percent of female critics, was rated much lower by men—just 76.9 percent of male reviewers liked it.” (There was nothing supporting Pereira’s assertion that critics, male or female, didn’t like films marketed to the opposite gender because of a perceived gap between what the reviewers expected from a film versus what the film delivered.)

The phrasing “just 76.9 percent of male reviewers liked Pitch Perfect” of course invites an ambiguous comparison (how many should have liked the film? 90%? 95%? 100%?). More to the point, if over three-quarters of men liked the obviously female-driven film Pitch Perfect, that rather contradicts Pereira’s thesis. In fact Pitch Perfect has an 80% Fresh rating on RottenTomatoes—exactly the same score that Birds of Prey did. We have two female-driven films with the majority of male reviewers giving both films a positive review—yet Pereira suggests that male reviewers pilloried Birds of Prey.

Perpetuating Harmful Stereotypes

Journalists making errors and writing clickbait headlines based on those errors is nothing new, of course. I’ve written dozens of media literacy articles about this sort of thing. As I’ve discussed before, the danger is that these articles mislead people, and reinforce harmful beliefs and stereotypes. In some cases I’ve researched, misleading polls and surveys create the false impression that most Americans are Holocaust deniers—a flatly false and highly toxic belief that can only fuel fears of anti-Semitism (and possibly comfort racists). In other cases these sorts of headlines exaggerate fear and hatred of the transgender community.

As noted, Pereira’s piece could have been titled, “Birds of Prey: Most of the Positive Reviews Are from Men.” That would have empowered and encouraged women—but gotten fewer outrage clicks.

In many cases what people think other people think about the world us just as important as what they personally think. This is due to what’s called the third-person effect, or pluralistic ignorance. People are of course intimately familiar with our own likes and desires—but where do we get our information about the 99.99% of the world we don’t and can’t directly experience or evaluate? When it comes to our understanding and assumptions about the rest of the world, our sources of information quickly dwindle. Outside of a small circle of friends and family, much of the information about what others in the world think and believe comes from the media, specifically social and news media. These sources often misrepresent the outside world. Instead they distort the real world in predictable and systemic ways, always highlighting the bad and the outraged. The media magnifies tragedy, exploitation, sensationalism and bad news, and thus we assume that others embody and endorse those traits.

We’re seeing this at the moment with shortages of toilet paper and bottled water in response to Covid-19 fears. Neither are key to keeping safe or preventing the spread of the virus, yet people are reacting because other people are reacting. There’s a shortage because people believe there’s a shortage—much in the way that the Kardashians are famous for being famous. In much the same way, when news and social media exaggerate (or in some cases fabricate) examples of toxic behavior, it creates the false perception that such behavior is more pervasive (and widely accepted) than it actually is. Whether or not male film reviewers mostly hated Birds of Prey as Pereira suggestedand they didn’t—the perception that they did can itself cause harm.

I don’t think it was done intentionally or with malice. But I hope Pereira’s piece doesn’t deter an aspiring female filmmaker who may read his widely-shared column and assume that no matter how great her work is, the male-dominated film critic field will just look for ways to shut her out and keep her down merely because of her gender.

There certainly are significant and well-documented gender disparities in the film industry, on both sides of the camera, from actor pay disparity to crew hiring. But misogynist men hating on Birds of Prey simply because it’s a female-led film isn’t an example of that. I note with some irony that Pereira’s article concludes by saying that “Birds of Prey was meant to be a celebration, but it sadly experienced the same thing as every other female-driven film: a host of negativity about nothing.” That “host of negativity” is not reflected in male film reviews but instead in Sergio Pereira’s piece. His CBR article is itself perpetuating harmful stereotypes about female-driven films, which is unfortunate given the marginalization of women and minorities in comic book and gaming circles.

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! 

A longer version of this article appeared on my Center for Inquiry blog; you can read it here. 

Jul 182019
 

It was a bold and brash attack on innocent girls that outraged the world and spawned unprecedented online activism: Boko Haram, an extremist Muslim group in Nigeria, abducted about 276 schoolgirls from a rural secondary school in the town of Chibok on April 14, 2014.

Since that time about half have been recovered, and over 100 remain missing despite an international outcry and hundreds of celebrities demanding that the group #Bringbackourgirls. Despite the presence of advisors and special forces troops from countries including the United States, Canada, England, and France, the location of the kidnapped girls remains unknown—or if it is known, it has been deemed too difficult a location to stage a successful rescue mission.

Though the Chibok girls got international attention, they were not the only victims. As The New York Times Magazine described, many thousands of boys were also abducted and conscripted into Boko Haram’s ranks, forced to pillage, shoot innocent people, and at times behead their victims. Missing girls typically get more media attention than missing boys, and this was no exception.

Bringing Back Our Girls and Boys

So what happened? How has Boko Haram been able to defy a half-dozen of the most powerful nations in the world for half a decade? There are several reasons.

First, rooting out the group has been much more difficult than American and Nigerian officials expected. The region where the captives were taken is remote and vast—including the rugged Sambisa Forest where surveillance drones are of little use—and where the Nigerian government has limited influence. Many also blamed Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan for not accepting international assistance sooner.

Second, the limits of hashtag activism became apparent; sharing outrage on social media felt empowering to many shortly after the abduction but did not translate into any real effect. The collective outrage of the Western world was irrelevant to Boko Haram, who reveled in the attention and recognition. Celebrities including Justin Timberlake, Sean Penn, and Bradley Cooper joined the campaign; Timberlake, for example, tweeted an image holding signs that said “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls”—a well-intended effort based on the dubious premise that militant Muslim terrorists can be shamed into questioning their masculinity by wealthy American actors and pop stars.

First Lady Michele Obama was one of many prominent celebrities to embrace the cause, and the fact that the wife of the most powerful man in the world addressed the group in a viral May 7 photo posted to social media asking for the return of its hostages gave Boko Haram legitimacy it sought.

The online community soon lost interest when positive results weren’t forthcoming. As days turned to weeks and months to years, the demand to Bring Back Our Girls faded. Most of those who initially shared the pleas on social media soon moved on to other causes and other concerns, including ALS water dunkings and outrage over the police shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri. Other important international news stories took precedence.

Third, political and ethical pressures have prevented the return of the kidnapped girls. There have been several opportunities to bring back the captives, but none of them were politically viable for Nigeria and the United States. For example one option would be to simply buy the girls back from Boko Haram, since they were captured to be sold as slaves. While this would safely reunite the girls with their families and achieve a peaceful end to this hostage situation, this would put both countries in the position of participating in the slave trade and trafficking of humans—which of course is illegal and morally abhorrent.

American officials could reframe the situation to avoid the slavery aspect by simply referring to the girls as “hostages” (regardless of what Boko Haram wishes to call them), and proceed to negotiate for their release, as governments around the world often do (whether they publicly acknowledge it or not). Informal overtures were made to Boko Haram about the possibility of making a deal for the girls’ return. Some have expressed outrage at the practice, saying it encourages kidnapping and rewards terrorism, but the simple fact is that governments negotiate with terrorists all the time while officially denying it. The reason is simple: if a group has hostages you want returned alive and unharmed, there are very few options. Like it or not, the best way to get the desired outcome is to negotiate the release of hostages. Anything else, including—and especially—an armed military attack is likely to leave dozens of people (both terrorists and hostages) dead, which the government will likely be blamed for.

Not only has Boko Haram refused to release its hostages as demanded, but their power has grown. Abductions and attacks have continued; as a CNN timeline shows, the group’s power remains. The Obama administration was understandably distracted by serious conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Russia, and elsewhere, and the Boko Haram hostage situation created a very thorny political and ethical dilemma that the Trump administration has shown no appetite for tackling. The parents of the kidnapped girls, of course, don’t care whether Nigeria and the Western countries set political precedents or appear to appease terrorists or buy slaves. They just want their children returned.

You can see the original version of this article 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! 

Jul 032019
 

It was a bold and brash attack on innocent girls that outraged the world and spawned unprecedented online activism: Boko Haram, an extremist Muslim group in Nigeria, abducted about 276 schoolgirls from a rural secondary school in the town of Chibok on April 14, 2014.

Since that time about half have been recovered, and over 100 remain missing despite an international outcry and hundreds of celebrities demanding that the group #Bringbackourgirls. Despite the presence of advisors and special forces troops from countries including the United States, Canada, England, and France, the location of the kidnapped girls remains unknown—or if it is known, it has been deemed too difficult a location to stage a successful rescue mission.

Though the Chibok girls got international attention, they were not the only victims. As The New York Times Magazine described, many thousands of boys were also abducted and conscripted into Boko Haram’s ranks, forced to pillage, shoot innocent people, and at times behead their victims. Missing girls typically get more media attention than missing boys, and this was no exception.

Bringing Back Our Girls and Boys

So what happened? How has Boko Haram been able to defy a half-dozen of the most powerful nations in the world for half a decade? There are several reasons.

First, rooting out the group has been much more difficult than American and Nigerian officials expected. The region where the captives were taken is remote and vast—including the rugged Sambisa Forest where surveillance drones are of little use—and where the Nigerian government has limited influence. Many also blamed Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan for not accepting international assistance sooner.

Second, the limits of hashtag activism became apparent; sharing outrage on social media felt empowering to many shortly after the abduction but did not translate into any real effect. The collective outrage of the Western world was irrelevant to Boko Haram, who reveled in the attention and recognition. Celebrities including Justin Timberlake, Sean Penn, and Bradley Cooper joined the campaign; Timberlake, for example, tweeted an image holding signs that said “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls”—a well-intended effort based on the dubious premise that militant Muslim terrorists can be shamed into questioning their masculinity by wealthy American actors and pop stars.

First Lady Michele Obama was one of many prominent celebrities to embrace the cause, and the fact that the wife of the most powerful man in the world addressed the group in a viral May 7 photo posted to social media asking for the return of its hostages gave Boko Haram legitimacy it sought.

The online community soon lost interest when positive results weren’t forthcoming. As days turned to weeks and months to years, the demand to Bring Back Our Girls faded. Most of those who initially shared the pleas on social media soon moved on to other causes and other concerns, including ALS water dunkings and outrage over the police shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri. Other important international news stories took precedence.

Third, political and ethical pressures have prevented the return of the kidnapped girls. There have been several opportunities to bring back the captives, but none of them were politically viable for Nigeria and the United States. For example one option would be to simply buy the girls back from Boko Haram, since they were captured to be sold as slaves. While this would safely reunite the girls with their families and achieve a peaceful end to this hostage situation, this would put both countries in the position of participating in the slave trade and trafficking of humans—which of course is illegal and morally abhorrent.

American officials could reframe the situation to avoid the slavery aspect by simply referring to the girls as “hostages” (regardless of what Boko Haram wishes to call them), and proceed to negotiate for their release, as governments around the world often do (whether they publicly acknowledge it or not). Informal overtures were made to Boko Haram about the possibility of making a deal for the girls’ return. Some have expressed outrage at the practice, saying it encourages kidnapping and rewards terrorism, but the simple fact is that governments negotiate with terrorists all the time while officially denying it. The reason is simple: if a group has hostages you want returned alive and unharmed, there are very few options. Like it or not, the best way to get the desired outcome is to negotiate the release of hostages. Anything else, including—and especially—an armed military attack is likely to leave dozens of people (both terrorists and hostages) dead, which the government will likely be blamed for.

Not only has Boko Haram refused to release its hostages as demanded, but their power has grown. Abductions and attacks have continued; as a CNN timeline shows, the group’s power remains. The Obama administration was understandably distracted by serious conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Russia, and elsewhere, and the Boko Haram hostage situation created a very thorny political and ethical dilemma that the Trump administration has shown no appetite for tackling. The parents of the kidnapped girls, of course, don’t care whether Nigeria and the Western countries set political precedents or appear to appease terrorists or buy slaves. They just want their children returned.

Apr 102019
 

Recent news reports claimed that most people intentionally disrespect transgendered individuals by calling them by something other than their preferred gender pronoun. For example one piece began: “Three in five people internationally report that they would intentionally misgender a transgender person, according to a recent survey. Ipsos found that only two out of five people in Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and the United States said they would call a trans man ‘he’ and a trans woman ‘she,’ instead of misgendering them.”

Written by Jeff Taylor for LGBTQ Nation, the article’s headline is “3 in 5 People Will Deliberately Misgender a Trans Person to Show Disrespect.”

Fortunately for trans people—though unfortunately for Taylor’s journalistic credibility—it’s not true.

For clarification we can go to the original study—the LGTBQ Nation article conspicuously did not provide a link—and look at what the questions and results were. We can begin by noting that the findings of the study bear little relation to the headline. In fact the study says nothing at all about the misgendering being either “deliberate” or intended to “show disrespect.”

The results vary slightly by country and whether the subject is a transgender man or transgender woman (see the graphs below), but for example we see that in the United States, the majority of Americans (38%, the single highest response) would refer to a trans man with a masculine pronoun, while about half that percentage, 21%, would refer to the person using a feminine pronoun. A slightly larger percentage, 23%, said they didn’t know how they would refer to the person, and a minority (18%) said they would refer to the person using a gender-neutral pronoun.

It doesn’t clarify whether any misgendering is intentional. It’s a subtle distinction, but the question doesn’t ask people what pronoun they would use when addressing a transgender person, but instead “when speaking about” him or her. Thus without context we cannot know whether that usage is motivated by intent to show disrespect or simply not knowing what the hypothetical trans person’s preference is. They may misgender people accidentally, or because they are unsure of the person’s preferred address, or out of hostility, or because they simply aren’t aware of the proper etiquette.

We cannot assume, as Taylor seems to, that any response other than the pronoun that aligns with how the persons lives and dresses—such as a neutral pronoun or “I don’t know”—necessarily indicates an attempt to deliberately misgender anyone. To do so is misleading at best and fearmongering at worst.

For more on this, see my CFI blog HERE.

Mar 302019
 

Long before TV ghost-hunting dudebros terrified of their own shadows, there was Eleanor Sidgwick, the original badass female ghostbuster. My article for Discovery News (now Seeker) on her 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! 

Oct 182018
 

In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here’s a look back at a show you might have missed: 

 

This week we start with Celestia’s tale of having a “tongue analysis” while on a cruise, which amounted to an alt-med version of cold reading. Then we examine a critical but controversial topic: are accusers routinely disbelieved in sexual misconduct cases? Ben brings some statistics on the public’s view of high-profile accusations, and Celestia tackles data on police handling of rape reports. How true is this notion, and, more importantly, what harm does inflating such a notion cause?

 

You can listen HERE. 

Oct 052018
 

As the country waits to see what becomes of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh pending the results of an FBI investigation, one thing has become clear: Whether or not the Senate believed Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations against Kavanaugh, most of America does.

In a PBS Newshour / Marist poll taken September 22 to 24, when asked, “Who do you think is telling the truth about what happened at the party in high school?” (one-third, 32%) said they believed Ford, with just over a quarter (26%) saying they believed Kavanaugh. The remainder, 42%, said they were unsure.

more recent poll taken after the conclusion of last Thursday’s hearings found that 60% of those polled found Ford’s testimony believable, compared to only 35% of whom found Kavanaugh’s testimony believable.

Another poll, from YouGov, found that 41% thought Ford was “definitely” or “probably telling the truth,” compared to 35% for Kavanaugh. About a quarter were unsure about both.

There is enough ambiguity in what happened for people on either side to be unsure. The “not sure” category is probably the most honest answer in this and other similar cases, given that none of them have been fully investigated, and opinions rest on political bias, whim, news and social media reports (and not, for example, evidence offered at a criminal trial). As CNN legal analyst Page Pate noted, “I think there is a real doubt about what happened at that house 36 years ago. That doubt would prevent Judge Kavanaugh from being convicted of a crime based on these allegations. But the same doubt may be enough to keep Judge Kavanaugh off the Supreme Court.”

That multiple polls show the public supports Ford over Kavanaugh may be surprising in a social media milieu where divisions are highlighted as a matter of course, but the same pattern holds true when you examine results from recent polls about sexual harassment and assault accusations. In every case the majority of people believed the accusers, and in most cases more men than women believed the accusers:

Q: Do you believe the women’s sexual assault accusations against Bill Cosby?

61% of men and 53% of women believe Cosby’s accusers.

 

Q: Do you believe the women’s sexual accusations against Roy Moore?

56% of men and 57% of women believe Moore’s accusers.*

 

Q: Do you believe the women’s sexual accusations against John Conyers?

63% of men and 53% of women believe Conyers’s accusers.

 

Q: Do you believe the women’s sexual accusations against Charlie Rose?

71% of men and 66% of women believe Rose’s accusers.

 

Q: Do you believe the women’s sexual accusations against Al Franken?

68% of men and 56% of women believe Franken’s accusers.

 

Q: Do you believe the women’s sexual accusations against Harvey Weinstein?

70% of men and 55% of women believe Weinstein’s accusers; 2% of men and 4% of women disbelieve the accusers, the balance said not sure or didn’t have enough information to say.

 

Q: Do you believe the women’s sexual accusations against President Trump?

45% of men and 44% of women believe Trump’s accusers; 23% of men and 14% of women disbelieve the accusers, the balance said not sure or didn’t have enough information to say.

 

Q: Do you think that the allegations that Donald Trump made unwanted sexual advances against women are mostly true or mostly not true?**

Mostly true: 61%

Mostly not true: 32%

No opinion: 7%

 

*responded that the person “probably or definitely” did what they were accused of

Sources: The Economist/YouGov Poll: Poll dates July 8-9, 2015, October 12-13, 2017, and November 26-28, 2017. ** CNN / SSRS poll December 14-17, 2017.

 

Why is there a widespread belief that accusers are doubted by default? Part of it is the often-insensitive way in which accusers are treated; the hearings of both Anita Hill and Christine Ford are Exhibit A, but one can also see it in the many personal stories that have emerged in the past few weeks with hashtags such as #WhyIDidntReport.

There’s also the loudness factor, in which the most belligerent people and comments (such as those by Lindsey Graham and Donald Trump, for example) are given far more attention than those by more restrained, less emotional colleagues. The most extreme voices are often the most quotable ones.

The media also plays an important role. This is because the news media often engage in a sort of false equivalence or false balance, for example presenting “both sides” of an issue as equally valid, popular, or important. This often happens in topics such as in “debates” about creationism, global warming, or vaccine dangers, in which a scientist and an activist will both be presented on equal footing when in fact the evidence overwhelmingly points to one position, and the other represents a minority point of view. (For more on this see chapter 3 in my book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us.)

It also happens in topics that spawn “national conversations,” especially about hot-button issues involving gender, race, and other social justice issues. The news media have a vested interest in highlighting conflict. While it certainly is true that Americans are divided about this issue—as they are about many issues—it’s not as if half of America is passionate, angry, and certain that Ford’s account is accurate and truthful, while the other half is equally passionate, angry, and certain that Kavanaugh is falsely accused. Many are unsure, and the majority tend to believe the accusers, not the accused.

Of course there is more to seeking equality and justice than just believing the accusers, but it’s an essential—and to many survivors, vitally important—first step. While it’s clearly true that many women who come forward with accusations are doubted and challenged, these polls and surveys suggest that in most cases when women come forward, they are in fact believed by the most of the public. This is good news, and should be reassuring for victims who may be reluctant to report their attacks. The public is with Ford, but whether or not the FBI will uncover disqualifying information in Kavanaugh’s case remains to be seen.

Sep 152018
 

As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) has passed its one year anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen!

This week we start with Celestia’s tale of having a “tongue analysis” while on a cruise, which amounted to an alt-med version of cold reading. Then we examine a critical but controversial topic: are accusers routinely disbelieved in sexual misconduct cases? Ben brings some statistics on the public’s view of high-profile accusations, and Celestia tackles data on police handling of rape reports. How true is this notion, and, more importantly, what harm does inflating such a notion cause?

You can listen HERE. 

 

 

 

Aug 202018
 

My new CFI blog on mountaineering physicist Melanie Windridge, who recently climbed Everest to promote science and encourage girls in STEM fields.

I interviewed physicist Dr. Melanie Windridge, author of Aurora: In Search of the Northern Lights, last year for a Special Report on the CFI website.

No armchair-ridden ivory tower egghead, Windridge is a veteran of days-long treks and wilderness expeditions. Her website features photos of her summits, and her book contains many compelling first-person adventures in Iceland, Scotland, Sweden, and Norway. “When I was doing my undergraduate work, I had no idea what I’d be doing now,” she told me. “I was doing fusion, so it was very lab-based, so it was very different for me to say I want to get out of the lab, I want to study physics in a very different domain. It’s really wonderful to see this phenomenon that really touches you on a personal, inner level…. But also to look at the science of it, and understand that the science doesn’t take away that feeling you get. It’s still magical. In fact knowing the science makes it even more incredible.”

As for her book Aurora, “I didn’t want to just write a science book. I wanted to celebrate the beauty and magic of the aurora and how captivating it is, and also explore the history of Arctic exploration and the cultures there… It’s this wonderful crossover between art, history, science, culture, and landscape.”

 

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! 

Jun 102018
 

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 Pascual talk about the phenomenon of outrage, especially on the internet. They break down some classic outrage from the last year and even have an update on a big story from last year! Celestia also stops by with another tasty fortune cookie.

 

 

You can listen HERE!

Apr 232018
 

I wasn’t “surprised” that the Southwest hero pilot is a woman, but I suppose many people might be. This CNN analyst claims it’s because of the images of hero pilots in movies.

 

But if people are indeed surprised to discover that the pilot is a woman, it has more to do with statistics than sexism. It’s not so much that the public assumes that women can’t be competent and courageous, but instead that only about 6% of commercial airline pilots are female. Since 94% of pilots are men, assuming that the pilot of any given flight—whether hero or heel—is probably a man is a reasonable and valid statistical inference, not a sign of movie misinformation or gender bias. There’s unfortunately plenty of sexism in the media, but I’m not sure this is a good example…

 

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

Mar 012018
 

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! 

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.

Jan 262017
 

August 8, 2014: The Shoppes at Rose Hall, Montego Bay, Jamaica

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I was done. I’d arrived at the gated tourist mini-mall about half an hour earlier, and couldn’t take any more of the servile shopkeepers shilling shelf after shelf of schlocky tchotchke of unrivalled tackiness. I didn’t need a colorful coffee mug featuring a baked (and well-endowed) rasta firing up a spliff, nor a shot glass with a slightly off-kilter outline of Jamaica, nor a Bob Marley-scented candle (don’t ask). I considered getting a bag of criminally overpriced Blue Mountain coffee, but thought the better of it when I read the fine print saying that the contents were “no less than 30% Blue Mountain coffee beans,” which by my admittedly shaky math left a lot of percentage for non-Blue Mountain beans. It was the off-season, and only a handful of sunscreen-scented tourists ran the gauntlet.

Awaiting a return shuttle back to my hotel, with the low tropical roar of the Caribbean to one side and the famous Rose Hall plantation house looming on the hill facing us, I noticed that the young woman at the boxed-in greeting/information desk was reading a romance novel.

The type didn’t surprise me—more romance novels are sold each year than all other genres combined—but I noticed that it was an American Harlequin-branded novel. I wondered if this young black Jamaican woman was relating to the blonde, Caucasian characters in the book and on the cover. After all, it’s often said that people want to see representations of themselves—their bodies and their culture—in their entertainment, spawning perennial complaints about the lack of minorities in TV shows and films. Curious, I approached the desk. She looked up, prepared to offer a canned answer about what shops were where, when the shuttles ran, or where the nearest restroom was.

Instead I pointed to the book tented before her on the desk and asked, “Do you prefer American romance novels to Jamaican ones?” She smiled and said yes. I asked if Jamaican ones were available and she said yes, but that they aren’t widely read. (The previous day I’d been in two bookstores in the nearby city, Montego Bay, looking for books on local folklore and seen a handful of locally-published books with sensuous dark-skinned covers—surrounded by rows of Fifty Shades of Grey.) She said that it wasn’t that Jamaicans preferred non-Jamaican characters or settings, nor that North American romance writers were better than locals. Instead, she said, Jamaican books are more expensive than others because they are printed elsewhere and shipped here, thus subject to import taxes and shipping. (Harlequin novels are, too, of course: except for sugar and coffee most things are imported to the island. But they’re mass-produced cheaply, and economies of scale drive up the cost of Jamaican books.)

Also, she said with a shrug, “Jamaicans don’t read.”

You read,” I noted with a smile.

“Yes, but I was forced to,” she replied. “As a girl I’d get a whoopin’ if I didn’t read. My mom had encyclopedias and she would make me read them to her, to learn.” I leaned forward on the wooden ledge, intrigued; I assumed her mother was a schoolteacher. “Was your mom a big reader?” I asked. She shook her head: “No, not at all. She didn’t finish high school. But she wanted me and the other children to learn to read, it was important.”

It was clear that the whoopin’ she referred to was not metaphorical; having spoken to a handful of Jamaicans I got the distinct impression that corporal punishment was widely practiced. She’d actually get smacked for not reading, not learning. “I love reading now,” she hastened to add. “I’m glad she made me read, I love to read the Twilight books, Harry Potter, all those.”

I was in Montego Bay for a television shoot; a producer from a show called The Dead Files (which airs on The Travel Channel) brought me out to do an on-camera interview about an investigation I’d conducted into Rose Hall, a former slave plantation said to be haunted by the ghost of Annie Palmer—the White Witch of Rose Hall. It’s one of the best-known mysteries in the Caribbean, a sordid tale of slavery, sexual perversion, voodoo magic, multiple murdered husbands, and bloody revenge. I’d done historical and on-site research solving the mystery; it can be found in Chapter 12 of my 2010 book Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries.

Back at my hotel after the shoot I’d spent the previous night reading a memoir titled Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs, who was born a slave in 1813 North Carolina and eventually escaped to freedom in 1842. It’s an unusual first-hand account of slavery during that time—rare because most slaves were illiterate; in fact in 1830 the North Carolina General Assembly passed a law making it illegal for anyone to teach a slave to read or write, and the penalty was severe: “If a white man or woman, be fined not less than one hundred dollars, nor more than two hundred dollars, or imprisoned; and if a free person of color, shall be fined, imprisoned, or whipped, at the discretion of the court, not exceeding thirty-nine lashes, nor less than twenty lashes.” As for slaves, “if any slave shall hereafter teach, or attempt to teach, any other slave to read or write, the use of figures [numbers] excepted, he or she may be carried before any justice of the peace, and on conviction thereof, shall be sentenced to receive thirty-nine lashes on his or her bare back.” Similar prohibitions enforcing slave illiteracy were found elsewhere at the time.

This practice, along with the history of slavery intimately associated with the country, was fresh in my mind as I heard the young woman tell her story. Most blacks in Jamaica are the descendants of African slaves brought to the island beginning in the 1500s by Portuguese to work on sugar plantations. I didn’t ask, but it’s very likely that her relatives—perhaps as recently as her great-grandfather—were slaves.

An irony dawned on me. The discipline meted out by a parent, of course, is very different from the discipline meted out by a slave owner. However there are parallels, and the ironic contrast of a mother giving her child a beating for not reading and improving herself was impressed upon me, especially coming from a community who in earlier days may have at one time been beaten for learning to read and write. Many American children only grudgingly learn to read and write, and after graduating high school never read for pleasure or work. They’re not illiterate; they can read food labels, government forms, bills, and day-to-day information. But beyond that, they pretty much don’t read—just as she said most Jamaicans don’t read. A generalization, to be sure, but one with more than a grain of truth to it.

I saw this first-hand years ago when I worked with the Literacy Volunteers of America teaching adults and non-native speakers to read; in most cases the clients grew up in households where reading was neither valued nor encouraged. I was fortunate to grow up in a literate home where newspapers, books, and magazines could be found, but many people do not have that benefit. I felt a strange literacy-based kinship with this young Jamaican woman and her mother. I pictured her as a young girl in their small house in the island’s rural mountains reading encyclopedias (which are written at a far higher reading level than anything you’ll find in most classrooms) aloud to her mother and siblings, tripping over the polysyllabic words—and in the priceless process learning about everything from antelopes and architecture to zoology and zymurgy. She grew up to be a bright, personable, intelligent, and well-spoken young woman.

As a reader, writer, and media literacy advocate I of course value literacy, and we were both grateful that her mother did as well—even if it took the threat of a whoopin’ to enforce it. I asked her what she wanted to do in the future, and she said she was planning to get a degree in business administration, a natural and lucrative career for a booming tourist island. I heard my hotel shuttle arriving behind me, but before I left I told her I was sure she was going to be an important and successful professional some day. She smiled confidently, sat upright in her chair, and turned back to her romance novel.

 

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

Jan 102017
 

A crowdfunding project has helped launch a new magazine, Kazoo, to empower girls and (in part) help steer them toward STEM careers. Kazoo focuses on girls and women, according to its website: “All of our stories are either developed or inspired by top female artists, explorers, scientists, chefs, athletes, activists, writers and others. Regular features include: science experiments; comics; art projects; recipes; interviews with inspiring women from Olympic athletes to astronauts; and fun activities, like secret codes, jokes, mazes, search-and-finds and more…. It will feature some of the most powerful and inspirational women in their fields, thus giving girls a more well-rounded sense of the world and the possibilities within it.”kazoo

Touted as “a magazine for girls who aren’t afraid to make some noise,” the website notes, Kazoo isn’t just for girls: boys would “probably love it, too. After all, there’s no such thing as say, girls’ science and boys’ science, or girls’ art and boys’ art. Science is science and art is art, of course. But most media that cover similar topics use boys as the default target audience, while girls are left with the burden of just ‘putting themselves in the story.’”

 

Founder Erin Bried explains that she and her five-year-old daughter were looking for a magazine they could enjoy together but were dissatisfied with what was available. Bried drew upon nearly twenty years of experience in high profile magazine including Self and Glamour, and in April 2016 launched a Kickstarter campaign “with hopes that other people would also be as interested in a magazine that doesn’t tell girls how to look or act, but instead inspires them to be strong, smart, fierce and, above all, true to themselves. Within 30 days, Kazoo became the most successful journalism campaign in crowdfunding history.” (Full disclosure: I contributed to Kazoo’s campaign.)

 

The theme of Kazoo’s most recent issue (Winter 2016/2017) is architecture, and features blueprints for making a snow fort and a bridge made of candy; a comic about the Brooklyn Bridge, a city scavenger hunt, ice science experiments, a banana bread recipe, and more. Kazoo, which carries no advertising, is only available in screen-free print form (since its pages contain art projects and puzzles) and costs $50 per year for four issues; subscriptions are available HERE.

 

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

May 182016
 

A decade after meeting sex education activist (and documentary subject) Shelby Knox I interviewed her about her life since the film, feminism, and activism. My new CFI blog is out, 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.

May 042016
 

In my recent CFI blog I examined studies on media representation, especially of minorities. Two recent reports have helped describe and quantify the issue, one from GLAAD (formerly the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), and the other from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. The reports (Where We Are on TV and Inclusion or Invisibility? Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment, respectively) are the results of painstaking tabulation and analysis. Like any measure they are not perfect, but they do provide insight into media representation trends. As a longtime researcher on the media (and author of Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us), I was interested to review the findings, specifically focusing on the status of sexual and racial minorities depicted onscreen.

The results were interesting and surprising; 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.

Mar 082015
 

Last month the respected Toronto Star  published a prominent and alarmist piece questioning the safety of the HPV vaccine Gardasil, which can help prevent cancer in girls. It didn’t sit well with scientists, as my article for Discovery News notes; you can read it HERE. 

Mar 032015
 

The respected PBS television series “Nova” has won multiple Peabody and Emmy awards. So how did it manage to so badly bungle an episode on anorexia, spreading myths and misinformation about the dangerous disease? Here’s a piece of investigative journalism I did, adapted from my Masters thesis on the subject of eating disorder misinformation in the media. You can read it HERE. 

Feb 252015
 

My article for Discovery News on how the U.K. is using belief in black magic to stem sex trafficking in Africa is now up! I hope you find it as interesting as I do… It’s good to see this sort of bottom-up culture-specific effort to end this scourge. You can read it HERE. 

Jan 252015
 

A viral story about how a high school allegedly used Photoshop to change their students’ yearbook photos to make them thinner started on Reddit earlier this month and has appeared on Gawker, Jezebel, Gizmodo, PerezHilton, and elsewhere.

As it turns out, the story isn’t quite as outrageous as claimed, you can read it HERE. 

Oct 202014
 

In my many years of writing articles and occasionally fact-checking news media reports (see, for example, much of my book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us), I’m continually baffled by the defensive stance that people often take when you fact-check their statistics. People often assume that if you’re checking their facts that you must be against them or what they’re trying to do. HERE is a follow-up about the film Miss Representation…

Oct 182014
 

Encouraging new study finds that weight discrimination is rare, not common: Most people report experiencing no harassment, insults, or boorish behavior due to their weight, and only 5% report being discriminated against because of their body size. You can read my piece on it HERE. 

Oct 132014
 

Yes, people are still being accused, tortured, and killed because of witchcraft accusations. It happened last week in East Africa when seven people died; my article on this horrible event, with some background on witch hunts, can be seen HERE.

Sep 262014
 

Hundreds of Colombian girls and their families are blaming HPV vaccines for mysterious symptoms. An interesting blend of anti-vaccination conspiracy and mass hysteria, you can read my article on it HERE. 

Aug 022014
 

The son of convicted serial child molester Jerry Sandusky came forward recently in an interview with Oprah Winfrey to corroborate reports of his adopted father’s abuse. However some psychologists are concerned about the validity of those memories.

You can see the story HERE.

May 202014
 

Last year it was pop superstar Kesha; now it’s actress Natasha Blasick — star of “Paranormal Activity 2″ — coming forward to talk about her sexual experiences. What’s behind reports of supernatural sex? You can read more HERE. 

Apr 052013
 

I recently wrote about penis-theft panics for LiveScience.com. I’d written about it before, for example in the book I co-authored with Bob Bartholomew, “Hoaxes, Myths, and Manias: Why We Need Critical Thinking,” and I included it in a talk I gave last year on mass hysterias at a skeptics conference. It’s an interesting subject that always gets people tittering…

You can read my recent story HERE.

Aug 202012
 

I’m quoted in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on racial bias in news reports: “As author Benjamin Radford wrote last year in an analysis for Discovery News, ‘If you disappear, you better hope you’re young, white, female and cute, or the media may not care.'”

You can read the story HERE.

Jun 252012
 

A bizarre illness affecting nearly 20 students at a Western New York Junior-Senior High school now has an official diagnosis: mass hysteria.The students, almost all of them girls, and mostly friends, began experiencing involuntary jerks and tics. Sometimes their limbs, neck or face would suddenly spasm; other times they would twitch, grunt, or shout. It was strange and troubling behavior, made all the more scary because it had no clear cause…. Read the full story HERE.

May 172012
 

The editors of nearly 20 international editions of Vogue magazine agreed last week to ban from their pages all fashion models younger than 16 or “who appear to have an eating disorder.” The move comes at a time when thin models are increasingly being accused of promoting unhealthy body images.

But will it do any good?  You can read more HERE.